Debussy: flute, viola, harp

In these superfluous polarities that we set up, I can’t help favouring Mozart over Haydn, and Mahler over Bruckner/Richard Strauss. Similarly, I’m so enthralled by Ravel that encounters with Debussy make a more occasional pleasure for me.

Laskine

One of Debussy’s most alluring works is the late Trio for flute, viola, and harp (1915; see e.g. this introduction). Having heard it a lot in my 20s, I’m just as enchanted now.

The instrumentation is one of those magical combos that was just waiting to be invented, like the shengguan ensemble of north Chinese ritual groups (e.g. sidebar Playlist #8), the classic bebop line-up with sax and trumpet, or the banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich.

Lily Laskine (left) and Marcel Moyse recorded it with Eugène Ginot in 1927 (first movement here); in this 1938 recording the viola player was Alice Merckel:

I still wonder if Noor Inayat Khan played it during her student years in Paris.

Evanescent, melancholy, and whimsical, fleeting vistas emerge and dissolve like Rouen cathedral in the mist. I relish the fleeting chinoiserie, and hints of Mahler’s Abschied at the end of the first movement, with a 7th on flute and harp hanging in the air over the harp’s major triad. And at the very end of the piece, the quirky extra chord never fails to delight me—it’s as if having spent so long gliding around in a sensuous, elusive sea of chromaticism, the performers are so surprised to find themselves actually landing on a chirpy conclusive cadence that they think they might as well confirm it for us with a final flourish.

The very end of the first and last movements.

I like this in-the-round performance at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, with Emmanuel Pahud, Yulia Deyneka, and Aline Khouri, from 2018:

And talking of Boulez, for the influence of this instrumentation on his sound-world, listen to Le marteau sans maître.

The Debussy Trio is a star exhibit in the chamber repertoire for harp, along with Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro (under my main Ravel page) and Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death. For more Debussy, Clair de lune is worth experiencing anew. For more Ravel chamber music, apart from the piano trio (also under Ravel), see Méfiez vous des blancs.

* * *

A BTL comment somewhere there led me to this mysterious quotation from Goethe (cf. Cite not Faust):

Blasen ist nicht floten, ihr musst die Finger bewegen

To blow is not to play on the flute; you must move the fingers

—or he might just as well have said

To move the fingers is not to play on the flute; you must blow.

Either way, it’s small wonder that Goethe wasn’t in great demand as a music teacher (cf. Stewart Lee on the British Book Cover Awards; for another post dragging a German icon to the trash, see Beethoven’s melodic gift, yeah right). A more radical maxim would have been

Don’t just do something, stand there

(which I still think should have been coined by Miles Davis), or a Zen koan on the silent shakuhachi in an empty forest.

A whiter shade of pale

Whiter shade

In 1967, just as I was beginning to dip my toes in oriental mysticism,  and just after Jimi Hendrix landed from Outer Space, Procul Harum’s debut single A whiter shade of pale became an iconic track of the Summer of Love, along with Sgt Pepper. It’s another of those pieces that slips too easily into legend, filed away without reliving its originality (click here, under “The ultimate tango cliché”; cf. Reception history).

My fusty musical tastes then being largely conditioned by the violin, I suppose I responded to the song’s classicism, although Bach didn’t mean much more to me then than he did for most fans of the song. Along with the trippy lyrics, the blending of the Hammond organ (cf. Booker T. Jones in Memphis) with the blues/soul/rock vocal style is perfect:

We skipped the light fandango
turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor
I was feeling kinda seasick
but the crowd called out for more
The room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away
When we called out for another drink
the waiter brought a tray.

And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale
that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale.

She said, There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see
But I wandered through my playing cards
and would not let her be
one of sixteen vestal virgins
who were leaving for the coast
and although my eyes were open
they might have just as well’ve been close.

Here Procul Harum perform it live:

This 1967 film (banned from the BBC) captures the zeitgeist:

A whiter shade of pale is the subject of a programme in the BBC radio Soul music series. With its walking bass, it’s commonly supposed to be inspired by Bach, in particular the Air, but the connection is more generic. Other similarities seem oblique, like the organ prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß, or the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s 1729 Leipzig cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (sadly not written for the BBC sitcom):

A more recent comparison is When a man loves a woman, sung by the splendidly-named Percy Sledge (1966):

While generally recreations of original versions are to be welcomed, I seem to regard A whiter shade of pale as sacrosanct, like Beatles songs, so I’m not susceptible to Annie Lennox’s cover. There’s a nice cameo in The commitments:

Meanwhile in 1967, great songs were still coming out of Detroit amidst social upheaval. Among other good years for music, try 1707!

Roundup for 2022!

Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.

Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…

Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:

While I can’t quite claim to have won the World Cup for Argentina,

and I’m exceptionally fond of

  • Ogonek and Til, for fans of tennis, fado, and Noh drama—wacky diacritics and nasal vowels, with matching anagram and limericks.

Meanwhile I seem to have recovered from being a Ticking Time-bomb:

* * *

China:

And it’s always worth reminding you of my film on the Li family Daoists, and this roundup of posts on them, as well as my work on Gaoluo village.

Tibet (updated roundup), including

I also update my collected posts on Uyghur culture, including

Turkey features prominently in my Roundup of posts on west-central Asia, as I try to educate myself (and even this is only a selection):

leading on to

and William Dalrymple:

Some posts on Ukraine (Applebaum, Snyder, Sands), also linking to

As to other world music,

An Irish music medley, including recent entries:

North Indian music (collected posts):

Jazz (roundup of another extensive series) (Turkish jazz listed above):

And then:

Western Art Music: among this year’s posts on Bach (updated roundup) are

Mahler: my whole series is now listed here, with recent additions

Also

Society, religion, ritual:

A mélange of other topics:

New entries in A Sporting medley include

Drôlerie:

Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).

Molly Drake

Cate DID

Desert Island Discs constantly reveals the personal meanings of music in our lives. Cate Blanchett’s thoughtful recent selection included Mahler 5, featured in her new movie Tár, in which she plays a conductor—despite rave reviews, I look forward to watching it with a certain trepidation, since Western Art Music seldom comes off lightly at the hands of directors (cf. Philharmonia). Anyway, her choice of the second movement (with Abbado, to boot!) was most discerning.

I have to admit that I’ve never warmed to the voice of Kathleen Ferrier, although I’m a devoted fan of Janet Baker. The series generally suggests Christopher Small’s plea to recognise the value of all kinds of musicking, not merely the “prestigious” (cf. What is serious music?!), and guests often include a track of amateur, domestic musicking that evokes intense memories or associations.

Molly Drake

Cate introduces Molly Drake (1915–93; playlist), observing: “So private, she was making music inside her home, for herself really… she gives me quiet courage.” Her choice is The little weaver bird:

Pundits have made a link between Molly’s “melancholy meditations on the fragility of happiness” and those of her son Nick.

Cate Blanchett’s final disc was Count Basie’s mantric, hypnotic rendition of Neil Hefti’s Lil Darlin’ (another gift from Tár):

Right at the end Basie slips in a little quote from In my solitude.

I’m even more infatuated by this version by the wonderful Sant Andreu jazz band (cf. here, and sequel):

Those hieratic wind chords remind me (and probably only me) of Messiaen.

A flamenco Rite

Galvan

I’ve long been hooked on the gritty art of flamenco (series rounded up here), and The Rite of Spring is utterly compelling in both orchestral and ballet versions, always a rich source of inspiration for new interpretations. It makes perfect sense for them to come together, and the other day I was delighted to attend a solo dance performance of La Consagración de la primavera by the ever-innovative Israel Galván at Sadlers Wells.

It’s hard to unhear the sonorities of the orchestral score, but the pared-down arrangement for two pianos (played by Daria van den Bercken and Gerard Bouwhuis) worked well, and Galván was mesmerising, embodying Stravinsky’s vision with his chthonic percussive energy.

Here are excerpts from a performance last year:

The dance complemented the agonised ethos of flamenco—modifying its ”self-pity, posturing machismo” (Timothy Mitchell) and the “culture of victimage” (William Washabaugh) (see Flamenco, 2). Blurbs for Israel Galván typically remark on how he “challenges gender norms”. While stressing the angular syncopations of Stravinsky, he added his own rhythmic counterpoints. His whole body became a sound-box, with relentless stomps and shimmies (his legs sometimes concealed beneath a huge billowing skirt) and expressive arms. Much as he deserved a nice sit-down, you might not think that the hectic Danse sacrale that concludes the piece would be quite the moment, but he spent most of it on a chair—legs, feet, and arms frantically busy as ever.

The Rite of Spring usually makes a climactic finale, but here it was the centrepiece of a continuous event, amidst two contrasting musical works, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti—also making suitable vehicles for Galván’s style. The programme brought out the highly percussive nature of the piano, even if I couldn’t help imagining a version on bandoneón and xylophone.

Some recent *MUST READ* posts

Cetegories

The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.

Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:

  • The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
  • Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
  • Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….

  • Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
  • Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!

  • The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
  • Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
  • Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London: social and musical change in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China—with homages to the Cantonese music scene and the early days of Ronnie Scott’s in Gerard street.

I’ve grouped these posts in the form 3+2+3, in the hope of encouraging you to revisit my post on aksak additive metres!

For an earlier list, click here.

Bach in an empty forest

Forest 1

Like Bach’s Air, or the Adagietto from Mahler 5, Jesu, joy of man’s desiring is another of those pieces to which we may have become somewhat inured by media  recyclings—but here it’s magically transformed on a mile-long hand-carved xylophone in an empty Japanese forest:

The video, made in the unlikely service of a 2011 advertisement for the “Touch Wood” phone of a telecom company (see e.g. here), enjoys an occasional vogue on social media, but I’ve only just clocked it.

The installation, directed by Morihiro Harano, was created by a team led by carpenter Mitsuo Tsuda and sound engineer Kenjiro Matsuo in the Daisetsu Mori-no garden, Hokkaido.

Forest 5

What makes it even more exquisite is the rubato caused by little imperfections in the design. I’d also like to hear more of the tremolo effect (from 1.04), another feat of engineering.

Forest 4

Perhaps this will lead you to the wonders of Takemitsu, the aesthetic of ma 間 “empty space”, and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture).

* * *

Nat GallLarge queues formed for the National Gallery concerts. Source.

For senior British generations, the piano arrangement by Myra Hess remains deeply meaningful, epitomising Londoners’ spirit in maintaining morale during World War Two, with the remarkable daily weekday lunchtime concerts which she organised at the National Gallery throughout the whole war (instructive material here).

The series featured many of the leading musicians of the day, such as the Griller quartet and Dennis Brain, in a variety of repertoire that included Bach’s great keyboard works and the Brandenburg concertos; the complete chamber works of Beethoven and Brahms; Hess played the twenty-one Mozart piano concertos, and Beethoven sonatas.

That much of this “great music” was German in origin says much about the ethos of the concerts and their organiser—who came herself from Jewish stock.

As Kenneth Clark, Director of the Gallery, recalled:

What sort of people were these who felt more hungry for music than for their lunches? All sorts. Young and old, smart and shabby, Tommies in uniform with their tin hats strapped on, old ladies with ear trumpets, musical students, civil servants, office boys, busy public men, all sorts had come.

Hess’s renditions of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring may seem a minor aspect of the repertoire, but as we listen it’s worth imagining the effect it must have had on Londoners, anxiously awaiting letters from loved ones at the front while bombs were reducing their city to rubble:

So Hess’s performances of the piece have become part of modern British mythology; but as tastes changed the style was largely submerged beneath pop music (see Desert Island Discs).

While for the wartime British Jesu, joy of man’s desiring made a microcosm of civilised values and the valiant resistance to fascism, in postwar Japan it took time for Takemitsu to overcome his alienation from musical traditions there, associating them (not incorrectly) with militaristic nationalism. Such a sub-text may be intriguing, but it’s hardly legible in the forest xylophone…

* * *

Jesu joy

Bach made various settings of the 1661 Lutheran chorale Jesu, meiner Seelen Wonne, such as in the Matthew Passion. The pastoral triplets familiar today are from Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, part of his magnificent first cycle of cantatas upon becoming Kantor at Leipzig in 1723; stanzas of the chorale conclude both parts of the cantata.

Just as Western Art Music was losing prestige, in post-war western Europe the niche of the early music movement brought a new aesthetic to Bach (see e.g. Taruskin, Butt, and Gardiner)—here’s the final movement directed by Ton Koopman:

Closing stanza of Part 1:

Wohl mir, daß ich Jesum habe,
o wie feste halt ich ihn,
daß er mir mein Herze labe,
wenn ich krank und traurig bin.
Jesum hab ich, der mich liebet
Und sich mir zu eigen gibet;
Ach drum laß ich Jesum nicht,
Wenn mir gleich mein Herze bricht.

Happy am I, to have my Jesus,
oh how firmly I hold on to him
so that he may refresh my heart
when I am sick and sorrowful.
I have Jesus, who loves me
and gives himself to me.
Ah therefore I shall not abandon Jesus
even if my heart breaks.

Closing stanza of Part 2:

Jesus bleibet meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Trost und Saft,
Jesus wehret allem Leide,
Er ist meines Lebens Kraft,
Meiner Augen Lust und Sonne,
Meiner Seele Schatz und Wonne;
Darum laß ich Jesum nicht
Aus dem Herzen und Gesicht.

Jesus remains my joy,
my heart’s consolation and sap,
Jesus protects me from all suffering,
he is the strength of my life,
the delight and sun of my eyes,
the treasure and bliss of my soul;
therefore I do not abandon Jesus
from my heart and face.

The whole cantata is glorious. Here’s John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the Michaeliskirche, Lüneburg, nearing the end of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000:

The exhilarating trumpet of the opening chorale, the aria for counter-tenor (Michael Chance!) with oboe d’amore, the soprano aria with violin, the recitative with oboes da caccia leading into the bass aria with trumpet… Yet again I reflect that Bach’s musicians and congregation at Leipzig can hardly have realised how blessed they were—even if they had to sit through a sermon between the two parts of the cantata (see under Bach—and Daoist ritual; cf. Passion at the Proms). For some other wondrous Bach cantatas, see under A Bach retrospective—also including Bach and the oboe.

So we’ve just heard some moments in the life of a melody as aesthetics have changed—1661, 1723, 1926, 1940, 2011 (cf. Reception history).

Dream a little dream

Dream

Composing and performing songs is an art—not just in Western Art Music, but in folk and popular genres around the world (cf. What is serious music?!). The songs of the Beatles deserve to be treated with the same seriousness as those of Schubert (cf. Susan McClary); and apart from pop music generally, it’s worth admiring the craft of miniatures such as cartoons, TV theme-tunes, and jingles (for the merits of “analysis”, see the introduction to my Beatles series, citing Mellers and Pollack). 

The exquisite Dream a little dream of me was composed in 1931 by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Unlike Beethoven, those guys really knew how to write a tune. A lullaby for parting lovers, it’s been revisited by many singers to different effects that reflect the changing zeitgeist.

Cass Elliott (1941–74, another sadly brief life) made the most celebrated recording with The Mamas & The Papas * in 1968—a time of revolutionary conflict when we have to remember that there was also a mood for such ballads. As she commented,

I tried to sing it like it was 1943 and somebody had just come in and said, “Here’s a new song”. I tried to sing it as if it were the first time.

And it’s magical:

Stars shining bright above you
Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you”
Birds singing in the sycamore tree
Dream a little dream of me

Say nighty-night and kiss me
Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me
While I’m alone and blue as can be
Dream a little dream of me

Stars fading but I linger on dear
Still craving your kiss
I’m longing to linger till dawn dear
Just saying this

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me…

Mama Cass caresses the lyrics (“Birds singing in the sycamore tree”…) with dreamy syncopations and triplets, never metronomic. The harmonic progressions into and out of the “Stars fading” section are enchanting. Whether or not listeners are consciously aware of it, various types of modulation are effectively used in pop music. Step-wise shifts are most frequent; but here, after the opening two verses in the home key of C major (with our ears perhaps prepared by the surprising chord at “whisper” in line 2), the second section modulates fluently, exhilaratingly, to A major (from 0.54)—distantly reminiscent of Mahler’s sudden revelation of alpine pastures adorned with cowbells, or an incandescent Messaien meditation suffused with ondes martenot [Steady on—Ed.].

The “Stars fading” section is a gem in itself. After the chromaticism of the opening two verses, its rather brighter mood, over layers of honky-tonk piano and wordless chorus, far from sounding brash, only enhances the song’s overall intimacy. With more lazy triplets, I relish the descending minor 7th leap (from high so to low la) at “linger on dear” and “linger till dawn dear”, framing more sensuous lingering on the last word of “Still craving your kiss“… And then, to signal the return to the home key, the harmony shifts back with “Just saying this“—first (1.13) beneath a descending semitone in the vocal line, then the second time (2.18) with dreamy wide leaps.

It’s all complemented by the arrangement, with the first bass entry slipping in for verse 2 (Cass responding with a funky rhythmic emphasis on “kiss me”), the nostalgic-pastiche piano interlude and coda, as Mama Cass becomes subtly more jazzy and energised… Every detail is perfectly calibrated to the dream.

* *  *

Going back to quirky original versions from 1931 transports us to a different era of dance music—when the singer was subsidiary, providing an interlude between the main instrumental sections. Here’s Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra:

And here’s Wayne King, introduced by some wacky chinoiserie at the very start (in homage to the organum of the sheng mouth-organ?!), with Ernie Burchill singing:

BTW, it’s fun to invert the chronology of these early recordings, imagining them as a post-modernist ironic take on Mama Cass’s song by the Michael Nyman band.

We can only hear early music with our modern ears; and how we respond to music over time depends substantially on the persona that we impute to the protagonists. Still in 1931, by contrast with those versions, Kate Smith (cf. By the Sleepy lagoon) performed the song with an impressive rhythmic freedom, and the band arrangement is also effective, already breaking out from the starched corset of the foxtrot:

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1950:

(Several YouTube uploads mistakenly attribute this to Billie Holiday, but alas she doesn’t seem to have recorded it—now that would have been amazing!)

Doris Day (1957) is even dreamier:

Now here’s a thing. For the “Stars fading” section, versions so far modulate upwards by a minor 6th—pleasantly novel, but not radiant like the major 6th modulation of The Mamas & The Papas (a stroke of genius that I surmise we can attribute to Papa John Phillips). And in earlier versions, for the first appearance of the line “Dream a little dream of me” the vocal line has risen brightly (mila–so); but as a later generation perhaps found this too soupy and saccharine, it was discarded, instead falling from a flat mi to re.

Just a few selections from numerous later covers. Anita Harris in 1968, almost contemporary with The Mamas & the Papas’ recording, sounds rather too four-square to my ears. Enzo Enzo recorded a French version, Les yeux ouverts, in 1990; Tony Bennett and k.d. lang sang it in duet in 2002; and the 2013 Robbie Williams cover (with Lily Allen) is in thrall to The Mamas & The Papas.

While there is much to savour in such renditions, the more I listen the more infatuated I am by the dreamy mood of Cass Elliott’s version, with her rhythmic variety, and all the subtle tweaks of the arrangement in timbre and harmony that make it so very enthralling.

And the song keeps inspiring younger musicians—such as Andrea Motis with the Joan Chamorro Quintet (see here, and here):

Other popular songs in similar vein that feature in my wide-ranging Playlist of songs include You’re my thrill, Moon river, I sing a little prayer, You must believe in spring, Comment te dire adieu—and a wealth of Beatles ballads. For dreams perhaps not envisaged by Gus Kahn, click e.g. here and here; see also Aboriginal dream songs. Cf. Bach as bandleader and arranger.

For Augusta!


* Pedants’ corner (cf. my notes to Morris dancing and Messiaen’s transcendent éclairs; see also Punctuation for truck drivers):
I don’t really Hold With the ampersand, which has a whiff of the corporate (the “vast emporium, one of these appalling achievements of our modern craving for the huge, the immense”, as Henry James characterised the Army and [sic] Navy Stores), but here, while curious, it’s correct… I also make a copious exception for G&T.

Beethoven’s melodic gift—yeah right

Beethoven wasn’t big on tunes; but melody wasn’t really the point.

In some ways we might see him as a precursor of minimalism. Too young to know any better, I immersed myself in his music through my teens; but later I tended to steer clear of his music, with honourable exceptions like the late quartets. For the thoughtful Susan McClary, he’s the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music.

To be fair, the 7th symphony is exhilarating, both to play and to listen to—DO bask in Carlos Kleiber‘s performance! As I comment in a note there, it seems unlikely that Wagner’s authority for calling the symphony “the apotheosis of the dance” was based on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene.

The 1st movement eventually gets going with a wacky motif (the mot juste) on flutes:

B7 flute
My idea of a tune, by L. Beethoven *
(aka “A stack of poppadoms”—cf. Berlioz)—
not to be confused with Taco taco taco burrito or Papa papa papa papa papapa

Beethoven clearly reckons he’s onto something here, as he wastes no opportunity to repeat it, sometimes even on a different note (YAY! And again, yes I know that’s the point…). In the coda, after the bass section treats us to ten more bars of it, against a deep pedal point on E they start grinding away on a chromatic motif (now using all of three notes—I say, steady on!) (cf. Unpromising chromaticisms), like a dog with a bone:

B7 ostinato

OK, this whole build-up is glorious…

Even in the slow movement, Beethoven holds out against giving us a Proper Tune (Viola Grade 8—cf. Viola jokes and maestro-baiting):

B7 slow

The Plain People of Ireland: Begob—this composing lark, it’s a doddle

The finale is obsessive too—without venturing too far into the art of conducting, Kleiber is exhilarating, highlighting its mechanical drive without making it seem too brutal. It opens with more minimalism from the hapless basses:

B7 finale

The violin, um, theme that it accompanies does have a lot of notes (progress), but unless conductors go to considerable lengths to adjust the balance, Beethoven’s instrumentation often drowns out the melody with manic off-beat sforzandi:

B7 finale violin

More unlikely chromaticism from the basses (another pedal point in the service of an exhilarating climax):

B7 finale bass 2

The symphony, built around ostinati, might be considered a response to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution—returning to Wagner and clubbing, maybe it’s the apotheosis of the techno garage trance dance. But for a really funky ostinato, how about Herbie Hancock?

I must confess that my musical examples above are no more successful in encapsulating Beethoven’s genius than were the Bolton Choral Society in summarising Proust

I’m very fond of the story about the opening bar of Beethoven’s violin concerto; just as drôle are his Wimbledon debut (“the second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was ‘just a harmless bit of fun’…”) and Creative tribulations. And do listen to PDQ Bach’s stimulating take on the 1st movement of Beethoven 5!

For an enchanting antidote, see Dream a little dream


* On a technical note, this rhythm can easily slip from

B7 rhythm right
into

B7 rhythm wrong

In my experience, even with experienced orchestras this can catch on quite often; it’d be interesting to listen out for how often this happens in performances and recordings.

A world tour!!!

The quest for the exotic—and Marrakech.
For another numinous London transport hub, click here.

Having regaled you with several stories of the 94 bus, gateway to the Mystic East (links here), I can now show my versatility with an encounter on another bus.

On Monday, en route to my daily swim, I climbed aboard at Chiswick High Road to find an old codger [Around your age?—Ed.] [Look, I’ve warned you about this—SJ] shouting loudly and somewhat menacingly at his fellow passengers: *

“If anyone’s going all the way to Hounslow Bus Station, just be aware that it takes about two and a half hours! It goes All Round The World!”

Wow, just imagine—the souks of Marrakech, the oases of Central Asia, the fabled Machu Picchu… and all for the price of a bus ticket to Hounslow. Who needs eighty days—I mean it’s not like there can be that much to see (cf. “I mean, what is there in Greece?”). More gazing at flowers from horseback. Anyway, rather than taking the opportunity to bathe in the limpid blue waters of Tianshan Lake, I got off up the road at the pool as usual. **

I won’t divulge the bus route, lest it become wildly over-subscribed.

See also Thankyou Driver!.

Stein
“Typical! You wait for days and then two come along at once!”
Sir Aurel Stein’s travels on the Silk Road, 1914 (click here).


* For another bus rant, see my BTL comment here.

** Seriously though folks, around the late 1990s, when we London musos still had quite a bit of work, I got a phone-call from an orchestral fixer: “Steve, can you pencil in a big world tour for next year, second half of September to late October, Bach and Handel programme with the choir… Starts in the Far East, then round Australia, west to east coast of the States, finishing up with European capitals and the UK”. YAY, I thought.

Couple of months later, phone rings again: “Hi Steve, just to update you, it’s looking like the tour’ll begin on the 28th September, and we should be back in London by 18th October.” Um, OK…

Later in the year (with undiminished enthusiasm): “Steve, we’ve just got those dates confirmed—it’s now going to be one concert in Singapore on 3rd October, and then Birmingham on the 8th.”

This was nearly as tempting as a Messiah in Scunthorpe for a jolly good tea—but it was a harbinger of the state of many an orchestral diary (cf. Perfection is NOT the word for it).

The kiosk in Turkey and Europe

kosk

The other day a further excursion around Kuzguncuk inspired me to reflect on the changing lives of its dwellers and the diffusion of the kiosk.

More grandiose than our humble kiosk, the Turkish köşk (a word itself borrowed from Persian kūshk) may denote a pavilion, gazebo, summer-house, pleasure palace, villa, or indeed belvedere (Chinese guan 觀, as in my own fantasy address “Priory of the Azure Cloud Bottle within the Belvedere of Tenuous Obscurity”).

Among several examples in the Topkapi Palace are the Tiled Kiosk and Baghdad Kiosk; many more köşks can be admired elsewhere in Istanbul; and such structures are dotted around the former Ottoman empire.

On the Asian side of Istanbul near Kuzguncuk are several fine köşks from the late Ottoman era, set in sylvan groves overlooking the Bosphorus. Two of them lead me to stories that encompass the Ottoman ancien régime, a household embodying the changing status of women under the Republic, and post-war Black Sea migrants in shanty settlements.

The Abdülmecid Efendi Mansion (wiki; more detail here) was gifted to the Prince by Sultan Abdülhamid in 1895. Abdülmecid (1868–1944), “the last Ottoman caliph”, was also a student of Western Art Music and a gifted painter—he depicted salon life at his köşk in the painting Beethoven in the harem (1915):

salon 1915

Abdülmecid (right, in pasha uniform) listens to his Circassian wife Şehsuvar Kadınefendi playing violin, Hatça Kadın (Ofelia) on piano, and his son Ömer Faruk on cello.
One of the other two women may be his third wife Mehisti.

Abdülmecid went into exile in 1924, living in France. His mansion is currently open to the public for the Biennale, hosting an imaginative art exhibition.

The Cemil Molla Mansion (see here, and here) lies just above the main coast road towards the bridge and the Beylerbeyi Palace. It was redesigned around 1895 by the Italian–Armenian architect Alberti at the behest of Cemil Molla (1864–1941), minister and cultured confidant of Sultan Abdülhamid. It was even connected to the Beylerbeyi palace by a tunnel.

Cemil Molla mansion

Lavishly furnished, the mansion was equipped with electricity, central heating, and a telephone—at a time when such luxuries were the exclusive preserve of the Yıldız Palace. The new köşk made an elegant retreat for the pastimes of Cemil Molla with his wife and children, and their English and French governesses. The children not only studied the Qur’an (Cemil Molla sometimes served as imam at the Üryanizade Mosque) but also learned solfeggio; dignitaries and philosophers assembled for elegant soirées, as the air filled with piano and oud, Baudelaire and gazals—just the type of gathering that musicians like Tamburi Cemil might have frequented.

Left: Cemil Molla köşk, interior; right, from The shining.

Upon the founding of the Republic in 1923, Cemil Molla went into retirement. After his death in 1941 the mansion was confiscated by the State Security Department. [1] It was soon thought to be haunted, * with his ghost wandering in the gardens—“disconsolately” being the obligatory adverb here. Later buyers have felt unable to occupy the mansion, with the Nakkaştepe cemetery nearby. The story cries out (spookily) for a movie screenplay, like a Turkish version of The shining—with an eery soundtrack of taksim on kanun, and Ravel’s La valse, echoing through gilded salons adorned with sepia family photos… This brief introduction to the mansion has some of the ingredients:

* * *

To augment the story, with the encyclopedic Kadir Filiz we accompanied his neighbour, the sprightly Fatma Hanim (“Lady Fatma”), [2] to revisit the slopes where she had made her home. Her account takes us on to the migrations of the post-war period.

Fatma H and Am for blog
Fatma Hanım with Augusta.

Fatma Hanım, now in her mid-80s, is one of those delightful grannies whom one dreams of meeting—we only had to mention a single keyword and she came out with a whole stream of reminiscences.

She comes from the Black Sea town of Boyabat in the hills south of Sinop, just east of Kastamonu. After her husband Ilyas was sent to Istanbul on military service around 1959, he managed to stay on there; soon after he paid a visit back to Boyabat, they returned to Istanbul with their first baby—the first of four.

Their new home was a gecekondu shanty-settlement just behind the Cemil Molla mansion. The land was owned by a Greek boss, who ran a pig farm and slaughterhouse as well as a gazhane factory producing gas. (His son Emil became a great friend of the popular gay singer Zeki Müren.) Fatma recalls life on the estate, in the heart of nature, as paradise—though she was shocked by the informality of the Greeks, with the men wearing shorts… She pointed out the trees she had planted herself.

Ilyas was a gardener on the estate, while Fatma worked as housekeeper for a lady who lived in a relatively modest yalı house on the coast just along from the Cemil Molla Mansion. In a most intriguing digression from the köşk, Fatma’s employer was none other than Sare Hanım (Sare Mocan, Sara Okçu, 1914–2000). This leads us to a complex family history that I can’t even begin to get my head around…

From a distinguished Ottoman family, Sare had been abducted on horseback at the age of 15 by Sefket Mocan, grandson of Sefket Pasha, and was later married to him. Her (much) older sister Celile (1880–1956), a painter, was the mother of the left-wing poet Nâzım Hikmet (1902–63; see also under Sabiha Sertel), and over his long years in prison Sare often visited her beloved nephew there.

Left: Sare Hanım in the 1930s, “the first woman to wear a bikini and trousers”
under the Republic. Source.
Right: Nâzım Hikmet with fellow inmates, Bursa Prison. Source.

Sare went on to become a modern cosmopolitan belle; she even flirted with the idea of becoming a Hollywood movie star. After divorcing Sefket she moved back into her family’s Bosphorus yalı; she remarried, and divorced again. Cemil Molla’s family also had a yalı below their köşk, so they were near neighbours.

Sharing the house with Sare was her niece Münevver Andaç (1917–97). Münevver had fallen in love with Nâzım Hikmet in 1949 while he was nearing the end of a long imprisonment, giving birth to a son and marrying him after his release in 1951—but he soon had to go into exile in Moscow. Prevented from accompanying him, she moved in with Sare; under surveillance, Münevver left for Warsaw in 1961 with her two children before making her home in Paris. Sare’s niece Leyla had also married, but moved back to the house after separating from her husband.

Left: Sare in old age, surrounded by her mementos
Right: the green yalı on the Bosphorus.

So the female household where our eloquent guide Fatma Hanım worked for over thirty years sounds like a microcosm of women’s changing status under the Republic (for more, see Midnight at the Pera Palace).

Returning to Fatma Hanım’s own story, in 1992, after the notorious campaign of Istanbul mayor Bedrettin Dalan to destroy the gecekondu shantytowns, thanks to Ilyas’s honest reputation he was able to buy an apartment in the Kuzguncuk mahalle itself for a good price, where he and Fatma have lived ever since.

* * *

Turkey being Umlaut Heaven, ** when diacritically-challenged infidels adopted the word köşk they didn’t quite know what to do with the vowel (for my wacky fantasy on diacritics, click here). Somehow our borrowing in English isn’t quite how I’d expect the vowel to behave (says he, sipping coffee in his pyjamas while plucking the lute), although I don’t know how we could have done better—”kosk” wouldn’t have worked, anyway. ***

In 18th-century Britain, Ottoman architecture enjoyed a vogue thanks to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (see under Hidden heritage).

Fast Show
Another British homage to Ottoman culture.

Our modern kiosk is far less grand. It might serve as a bandstand, or more often a little stall selling newspapers, cigarettes, snacks, and so on. We don’t seem so good at them in Britain—the garden shed, immortalised by Jessy on The fast show (cf. Rowley Birkin QC), is quite a comedown.

But I do enjoy a good French kiosque or Italian (um) edicola, and I recall some fine examples around pre-1990 central and east Europe—where the vogue had begun with King Stanislaus I (1677–1766) of Poland; for me, the kiosks of East Berlin, Prague, and Budapest were part of the Iron Curtain mystique, with the buzz of street life.

Thrd Man kiosk

With All Due Respect to Ottoman architecture, perhaps the most iconic kiosk is the one in the middle of an eerily desolate Viennese square in The third man, accompanied by Anton Karas’s zither.


[1] By 1942, with the grossly discriminatory Wealth Tax (evoked in the Turkish TV series The Club), the brunt of the burden was to fall on Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities. For Istanbul during World War Two, see Midnight at the Pera Palace.

[2] In the more personal honorific style of Turkish relationships, Kadir and Augusta address her as Fatma Abla (“Elder Sister”) or Fatma Teyze (“Auntie”).

* The Cemil Molla Mansion is listed among the Top Five Haunted Buildings of Istanbul!

** Funny how “umlaut” doesn’t have an umlaut, eh. It seems that Turkish hardly needs a term to specify the ubiquitous dots, üzerine çift nokta koymak (“put a double dot on it”) being a tad over-generous. BTW, I’m very fond of the Hibernian umlaut, which I finally mastered on a tour of the States with a Scottish cellist, whose frequent refrain was “Shall we go and get some füd?”

*** This rather reminds me of my sample sentence of English borrowings from the Venetian language:

if you read in the gazette of the imbroglio over an arsenal of contraband artichokes; and if you’ve ever been quarantined after zany scampi and pistachio marzipan in the ghetto, or worn sequinned pantaloons to a regatta…

A medley for Einheitstag

garden rock

My current sojourn in Istanbul happily coincided with another fine reception at the German Consulate on a balmy late summer’s evening, to celebrate Einheitstag unification day on 3rd October.

I’m all for a bit of Einheit, * particularly over copious wine and a varied menu in a sumptuous garden. In the Consul’s welcoming remarks he expressed solidarity with Ukraine, followed by personal solo renditions of both German and Turkish anthems sung by a Turkish staff-member. A local rock band then struck up—while I am no authority on these new-fangled Popular Beat Combos, a Good Time was had by all.

garden rock 2

One could also soothe the ear by taking refuge in the salon inside to hear the versatile Consul on flute, accompanied by the radiant Augusta Tickling the Ivories most appealingly. She then offered a medley that included Hildegard Knef (Angela Merkel’s choice for her farewell ceremony, along with Nina Hagen), some Kurt Weill, a song from Marlene Dietrich’s Lola, and Francis Lai’s exquisite Plus fort que nous.

piano

For more on the events leading up to Einheit, see Deutschland 89; the biography of my orchestral colleague Hildi (parts 1 and 2); and other posts under the GDR here.

Given the recent regression to 1950s’ deference back in Blighty—the kowtowing of once-critical people to power and privilege, military pomp and Christian values, forming an orderly queue in one last swansong of Einheit before we all succumb to hypothermia and starvation—and the spectacular dog’s dinner that the Tory “government” is making of absolutely everything, surpassing even its own high standards (see also Get a proper speech impediment, FFS, and Drawing a line), I really should have availed myself of the Consulate visit to seek political asylum there…


* Not to be confused with the metaphysical quest, sent up by Woody Allen in a notional adult-education course list (“Spring bulletin”, in Getting even):

Manyness and oneness are studied as they relate to otherness (students achieving oneness will move ahead to twoness).

Musicking: the crutch of exegesis

Ravel prom

When I go to concerts, I’ve always resented forking out for a programme. Such insights as it may bequeath are sandwiched between an array of glossy advertisements, reminding us of the mundane capitalism from which the event promises to afford us temporary refuge. Sometimes I do grudgingly buy a programme in search of some nugget of wisdom, but ideally I’d rather not be distracted from the experience of live musicking.

Having broached the issue here, sorry to go all world music on you again, but I can’t help going back to the ethnomusicological studies viewing Western Art Music (WAM) through the eyes and ears of a Martian, like Christopher Small’s Musicking or Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions. Concert audiences being highly literate, they tend to use that literacy as a crutch, a comfort blanket, seeking verbal explanation for an experience that might otherwise be more somatic and socially immersive. I wonder if we’re not quite prepared to immerse ourselves thus, almost as if we need some kind of distraction to allay potential embarrassment—while clubbers enter more fully into the live experience, audiences at rock concerts are distracted by filming the event on their phones…

Literacy is enshrined among the orchestral performers too, faithfully reproducing the printed score set before them; the conductor’s score on the podium serves as a holy text (the “quasi-sacred rite of ceremonially placing the score at the centre of the act of performance”), with only some maestros enhancing the experience by conducting from memory.

Ahouach
Ahouach
festivity, Morocco.

Conversely, at the musical gatherings of communities around much of the world (take your pick: Aboriginal dream songs, a Daoist ritual, an Alevi cem ceremony…)—where the participants may not even be literate—no need is felt to explicate the event in words, to list the performers and the conductor’s glittering list of recordings and forthcoming engagements, nor to tell us what Haydn was doing in London in 1795; rather, expressive culture is part of the fabric of the community, not hived off into a museum. Tickets aren’t on sale. I should add that there are plenty of events in Western societies where you don’t have to buy a ticket, or a programme, for an enriching musical experience—weddings, lullabies, Irish pub sessions

As to fieldworkers, no matter how they immerse themselves in a community, through the very nature of their constant questions (“Do you always do it like this? Is there a crucial part of the ceremony? Why are you inviting two groups of ritual specialists today?”) they will never attain the state of the inhabitants, for whom musical events form an intrinsic part of their lives. Of course, local participants may be quite capable of reflection, aware of nuances in performance, and concerned with the rules of variation; but such awareness is embedded in their hearts and bodies. The discursive mission of the ethnographer can only violate this sense.

Having already tried the patience of my Daoist master Li Manshan over the years by seeking to unravel the functions of the family ritual manuals, the changing performance practice since the 1950s, and so on, once I began depping occasionally for funerals with his Daoist band, I was able to add a most important insight: this is jolly hard work!

For the little segment of modern Western society that attends WAM concerts, the written exegeses of the programme booklet may enrich our appreciation of the event as well as distracting us from it. I now realise that the copious ads (for insurance companies, corporate sponsors, posh schools, retirement homes), so diligently blanked out by those drawn to the repertoire by some kind of spiritual bent, are just as revealing as the programme notes. Whether or not the ads are welcome, they convey a subliminal message, making a telling commentary on the social demographic of the audience. Concert-goers may be seduced by the myth of “music as a universal language”, but advertisers know better; programmes don’t tend to feature ads for food banks, helplines for immigrants, or offers of legal aid for striking health workers. As often in fieldwork, seemingly peripheral aspects, easily neglected, can afford valuable insights into the nature of the event.

The concerns of an audience for Mahler 7, apparently—
perhaps not so different from those of participants at a Chinese folk ritual:
providing for the security of the family?

Just saying, like… See also under Society and soundscape.

A roundup of roundups!

Apart from my annual surveys (2021 here), I’ve added a tag in the sidebar for roundups, where I group together posts on a particular theme. Whether or not you share my fetish for taxonomy (see e.g. here) and the joys of Indexing, as long as you start clicking away on the links (and the links within them…) then this could be a really useful navigational aid!

I could have sworn I published this roundup of such roundups before, but it seems to have disappeared. Note especially

China:

and surveys of my series on

I essayed an inventory of Chinese jokes under

Further global surveys:

Some other themes:

Western Art Music:

—a theme that also makes appearances under World musicking and ethnography:

Popular culture:

Drôlerie:

and

Mahler: a roundup!!!

Mahler 1907

Mahler is such an important figure on this blog (and indeed in “Western civilisation”!) * that I thought I should offer a roundup of posts—my The art of conducting links to many of these, but it’s always good to remind ourselves of his astounding body of work.

Mahler cartoon

Note the definitive four-volume study by Henry-Louis de La Grange—and online, his series here, with essays on all the symphonies (cf. conductors’ ideas). Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (2010) is engaging and instructive. For recording guides, see here.

I began writing about Mahler with a post musing on performance practice, vibrato, and Daoism, and went on to offer reflections on the individual symphonies, all overwhelming in their different ways—with plentiful A/V embeds of some of the great interpreters like Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, and Rattle:

Urlicht from the 2nd, and the Adagio of the 4th.

Here’s my detailed “programme” for the apocalyptic passage in the first movement of the 10th, with the “Scream”:

Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing, but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):

  • 16.15 the descent into hell begins
  • 16.44 rise of Nazism
  • 17.06 brief moment of false hope (Weimar cabaret): desperate “Maybe we’ll be all right”
  • 17.25 Kristallnacht; invasions of Poland and Russia
  • 17.37 the concentration camp system
  • 17.50 the horrors of the camps are finally revealed.

Mahler 10 scream

And most essential is the heart-rending song

Amidst all the pain and ecstasy of his searing vision, Mahler incorporates the sounds of popular, folk, and world musics.

Other posts of note include

Ending of the 9th, and Anna.

Of no consequence whatsoever is Mahan Esfahani’s mystifying incomprehension


* The quotes there alluding, you gather, to the much-cited but elusive Gandhi story: when asked “What do you think of Western civilisation?”, he is said to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea”.

Mahler 7 at the Proms

*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*

Mahler 1908
Mahler (left) with Bruno Walter, Prague 1908.
Source: Mahler, Year 1908, with many more images.

As a self-confessed Mahler fanatic, I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by the 7th symphony (see e.g. here, and wiki)—and it transpires I’m not alone. I’ve finally got to know it better with the prospect of hearing the stellar lineup of Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Phil performing it live at the Proms (listen here).

Prom BPO

Mahler wrote the symphony in 1904–05, premiering it in Prague in 1908, over which period his family and professional problems had taken a serious turn for the worse.

Here’s a rather impressive review of the British premiere in 1913, led by Henry Wood—I like

It looked as if the audience had derived some pleasure from the performance, though they felt not sure whether they were right in enjoying it. [cf. Woody Allen’s “wrong kind of orgasm”.]

The opening movement is most substantial, after the opening melody on Tenorhorn with its unsettling tritone. Of course, Mahler thrives on extreme contrasts, but somehow I still find the symphony too disjointed; the collage sometimes reminds me of Ives. More intimate sections are all too fleeting, like that building from the bucolic passage (from 9.11 in Abbado’s performance below) and near the ending (from 17.01), before the climax of the coda—which I also find rather a challenge.

Between the more grandiose outer movements, the two pieces of nachtmusik are themselves punctuated by a spooky scherzo, foreshadowing Ravel’s La valse (“a surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”)—and featuring an fffff pizzicato in the cellos and basses!

The first nachtmusik is “grotesque, with friendly intentions”, according to wiki; the second, andante amoroso, is more intimate and human, with a transcendent ending—before the blazing, brash finale, which Michael Kennedy described as “a vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy”. Without Mahler’s typical extended passages of intense soul-searching, the final victory doesn’t seem sufficiently hard-won.

In this symphony the kitsch that is such a distinctive, poignant part of Mahler’s sound world rarely moves me. Even his use of cowbells doesn’t add up to much after the transcendental (if ambivalent) mood they impart in the 6th symphony. Mahler’s palette also makes use of guitar and mandolin—another suitable outlet for the Music Minus One franchise?

My struggle with the 7th may be partly to do with my personal history of getting to know the symphonies, but critics have long pondered its flaws; even if it has some impressive defenders, it it is famously difficult to make cohere.

As to recordings (see e.g. here and here, as well as Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? pp.267–8), I’ve chosen some outstanding live performances. Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra always make an exceptional team—here they are in 2005:

Of course, that’s rivalled by earlier performances—like Bernstein with the unrepentantly all-male Vienna Phil in 1974:

This 1993 concert by Tennstedt and the London Phil was his last recording:

and here’s S-Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil in 1999:

Back at the Proms, the Berlin Phil sounded fabulous (for the orchestra’s early history, click here, and here). But even hearing it live, much as I relish the building blocks, I must admit I still don’t really get the piece—it feels as if the pieces of the jigsaw don’t quite fit together. Still, it’s Mahler, and the standing ovation was richly deserved (see this rave review).

This season also features the 1st and 4th symphonies—as well as S-Simon conducting the 2nd, the event of the season. I will always enjoy hearing the 7th live, but it’s also a reminder to immerse ourselves in the miracles of the 2nd and 3rd, the 9th and 10th, the 5th and 6th, the 1st and 4th, as well as Das Lied von der Erde

Medieval jazz

jazz bass

This image, from the fun Twitter account weird medieval guys, appears to depict an early musical experiment that—once they worked out how to attach the strings—was eventually to mature into the jazz bass solo.

Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers, bass player on immortal albums like Blue train and Kind of blue.

That reminds me of the classic marriage guidance story, and Woody Allen’s catalogue of mythological beasts. See also under A jazz medley, including Mingus; and Another unlikely invention. Cf. Medieval helpline, and for a fine put-down of our own experiments in playing medieval estampies, A music critic.

The NYO Prom, 2022: Ravel and Gershwin

NYO Prom 2022

The annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra to the Proms is always a great event. This year, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, their programme included Ravel and Gershwin—listen here (also to be shown on BBC TV on 19th August).

Fokine 1910
Michel Fokine in Daphnis and Chloé, c1910. Source: wiki.

The week after Ravel’s piano concerto, Daphnis and Chloé was ravishing as ever, brilliantly played—even if I wanted rather more fantasy, bringing out its balletic, gestural, impromptu, sensual qualities, as my rose-tinted hearing-aid recalls Boulez conducting it in the 1970s…

In the first half, after Danny Elfman’s Wunderkammer, Simone Dinnerstein played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, always a pleasure. As an encore they played a Gershwin arrangement by Trish Clowes, conducted by NYO percussionist Sophie Stevenson (her jaunty hat not recalling the headwear of the Albert Hall audiences of yesteryear).

hats Albert Hall 1908Source.

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.155–63) has some salient perspectives on Gershwin. The premiere of Rhapsody in blue, “with one foot in the kitchen, one in the salon”, was part of the mission “to give jazz a quasi-classical respectability” (cf. What is serious music?!, and Joining the elite musical club).

The wiki article on the piece has intriguing detail. Gershwin first wrote it in 1924 for a concert at the Aeolian Hall in New York entitled “An experiment in modern music”, whose purpose was “to be purely educational”. Conceiving it as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”, he played the solo piano part himself, with the score for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band arranged by Ferde Grofé. Gershwin partially improvised, and only committed the piano part to paper after the performance (cf. Messiaen).

Lawrence Gilman’s review of the premiere is included in Nicolas Slonimsky’s wonderful Lexicon of musical invective:

I weep over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.

Like the audience, other critics were more enthusiastic, one commenting that the piece had “made an honest woman out of jazz” (oh, so jazz is female is it, like ships? Pah!). On an incongruous note, the concert ended with Elgar’s Pomp and circumstance March No.1.

Further to the piano rolls of Mahler and Debussy, here’s a gorgeous (if very fast) recording of Gershwin’s own piano roll from 1925 fused with the Columbia Jazz Band directed by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976:

Amidst all the jazzy glitz, crowning the piece (from 8.22 on the recording above) is one of the All-Time Great Tunes, * worthy of Rachmaninoff—in sumptuous E major, to boot!

By the time Grofé made the orchestral arrangement in 1942, jazz hardly needed the veneer of respectability, although it did go on to acquire a quasi-classical status.

Gershwin poster

Rhapsody in blue soon became the soundscape of New York (for well-off white people, I guess that means). Some musicians still had reservations about it, like Constant Lambert: “neither good jazz nor good Liszt”. Leonard Bernstein’s comments have been seen as criticism, but read more like an insight into the intrinsic nature of jazz, countering reification:

Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section, or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.

It’s mainly become a frozen vehicle for WAM pianists rather than jazzers, but here’s a refreshing 1995 recording with Marcus Roberts:

Among composers who were reluctant to inflict their learning on such a genius as Gershwin were Nadia Boulanger, Ravel, Schoenberg—and Alban Berg, who remarked wisely:

“Mr Gershwin, music is music.”

* * *

Oh well—in the end the NYO Prom was still, um, an orchestral concert. Maybe I was still in world-music mode after immersing myself in the Pontic lyra and Rajasthani bards, so I had to get used again to the whole complex regimentation of the orchestral machine, and found myself struck by the vast investment of aspirational parents (instruments, lessons, giving lifts to local venues…).

For some of the NYO’s previous Proms, click here, here, and here. Listen here for Barbara Hannigan singing Gershwin. See also many posts under A jazz medley, and Society and soundscape.


* With my usual qualifications—remembering (of course) to include in our remit Hildegard von Bingen, fado, the preludes of north Chinese ritual wind ensembles, kilam laments of Kurdish bards, and so on.

Another Proms Rite

RiteNot the new European champions defending a corner (another Spot the Ball competition),
but Nijinsky’s “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.

Hot on the heels of the amazing women’s football on Sunday, it was great to return again to the Proms, to hear the engaging Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a fine programme (listen here) culminating in Stravinsky’s ever-astounding The Rite of Spring.

BrabbinsPhoto: BBC.

The overture, Harrison Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000, far from The pirates of Penzance, was challenging but mercifully brief. Then young Tom Borrow played the exquisite Ravel piano concerto—the perfect piece for a summer night at the Proms. I was even able to forgive him for not being Hélène Grimaud. After a rather measured first movement (with more rubato than Ravel might have wished), thankfully he didn’t take the Adagio assai quite as slowly as in this 2019 performance (assai is generally interpreted as “very”, but some composers used it as “rather”; I don’t know how Ravel meant it, but an excessively ponderous interpretation doesn’t seem to work for a piece of such classical elegance). As an encore he treated us to Debussy’s Feux d’Artifice.

Borrow

Before the interval the orchestra played the stimulating Jonchaies (“reed-beds”, 1977) of Iannis Xenakis (see also this obituary). Pierre Boulez described Xenakis as having a “fantastic brain—absolutely no ear”, but Jonchaies is full of fantastical sonorities.  I’m really pleased to have heard it. Here’s a recording:

The choice was apt: its primordial soundscape is somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which followed after the interval. Though long part of the mainstream orchestral repertoire, The Rite never loses its power to amaze (see The shock of the new, and the NYO’s 2017 Prom). Just imagine hearing it for the first time, or indeed playing it as a teenager…

Desert Island Discs

Plomley

Writing in the LRB, Miranda Carter gives a thoughtful and entertaining survey of the history of Desert Island Discs.

Conceived in 1941 by Roy Plomley (as the weekly broadcasts still continue to remind us), its reassuringly familiar format has borne witness to changing times and tastes. We can hear 2,360 episodes online:

Over seventy years, the language with which we describe ourselves, and expectations about what it’s acceptable to reveal in the public realm, are audibly mapped.

Plomley was straight-laced, tight-lipped, “congenitally reluctant to pry”, In the early days “the musical choices were criticised for being too highbrow—”no Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin or Joe Loss”, and this remained so until the 2010s [?].

Desert Island Discs’ biggest ever record is Handel’s Messiah. Until 2010 the most frequently played composers were Mozart, Bach and Beethoven, and the most popular non-classical record was “Je ne regrette rien” sung by Édith Piaf, which hobbled in at 27th in Desert Island Discs’ all-time top hundred. My hunch is that this classical skew came about partly because Stoppard was right—castaways wanted to look cultured—but also because most people’s pool of familiar classical music is much smaller than their pool of familiar popular music, so the same classical tracks have been chosen over and over, while votes for contemporary songs have been more thinly spread across many more records. Only after 2010 did the Beatles enter the top three, largely because, I think, classical music has become less important as a signifier of classiness.

Indeed, the show reflects the society’s whole demotion of WAM and the acceptance of other ways of being. Still, it’s good to find the slow movement of the Schubert string quintet and the Terzetto from Così fan tutte among the most popular classical choices.

When the BBC switched to recording on tape, which could be edited before going out, scripts were no longer needed. “It was a great improvement”, Plomley remarked. At last the series could be put “properly to work to fulfil its function of revealing character”. Not that this actually happened. More space was allotted to speech, and the castaways began to talk about their careers. Yet Plomley, always genial and irreproachably polite, refused to probe. Any sign of emotional revelation sent him charging in the opposite direction. […]

Thatcher [1978]: When you’ve problems there’s nothing like close relatives.

Plomley: Your forebears had been craftsmen and tradesmen, one was an organ maker?

And with Liberace, cast away in 1959:

Liberace: I am very happy with my success, but I look back at former times when I enjoyed simple pleasures that I can’t seem to enjoy now.

Plomley: Right. Let’s have record number four. […]

Still in the 1960s,

the audience kept listening, comfortable with the level of formality and lack of disclosure. […] Respondents said they liked Desert Island Discs’ safe atmosphere and lack of aggressive, intrusive questioning. […]

But change did come. Thanks to the archive, you can hear it happening. It was brought in not by Plomley but by the guests themselves, as a new generation of castaways—younger, more candid—began to appear among the worthies and elderly comedians.

As to the luxuries requested, besides booze, inflatable dolls began making an appearance:

Ronnie Scott asked for a Faye Dunaway doll, though Plomley persuaded him to take a saxophone instead.

I note that John Cleese was allowed to take Michael Palin with him, on the condition that he was dead and stuffed.

As the rest of the media became more aggressive in the pursuit of celebrities and their secrets, Desert Island Discs seemed as safe and as relaxed as anywhere on air.

After Plomley died in 1985, Michael Parkinson took over for a mere two years, unjustly criticised for being too intrusive, asking more probing questions and getting more personal answers. This was the first time castaways listened to their choices during the show. Under Sue Lawley the programme

became the most quietly subversive and consistently exposing interview show on TV or radio—a considerable achievement as celebrity was becoming ever more tightly mediated. […] It’s no accident that it was on Lawley’s watch that castaways began to cry.

And she reversed the forty-year policy of avoiding politics and controversy.

Kirsty Young

Carter considers Kirsty Young, who presided from 2006 to 2018, the best presenter in the programme’s history—more like a therapist. The current incumbent Lauren Laverne is “warm and cheerful”:

A harsh critic might say that the programme is now closer to the Plomleian era than it was under the three presenters in between. Laverne doesn’t challenge her guests’ accounts of themselves; obvious plugging is more detectable. But it may be that this merely reflects another shift in the culture. The celebrity interview is no longer the occasion it once was. The internet has created innumerable routes by which the famous can control and curate their own exposure. One unguarded public comment can result in online pile-on and career suicide. Say the wrong thing on the radio these days, and you may wish you really had been washed up on a desert island.

For a variety of posts on Watching the Engiish, see under The English, home and abroad.

* * *

Meanwhile Eric Coates’ theme tune By the Sleepy lagoon [Bognor] has remained unchanged, a reassuring comfort blanket.

I’ve referred to the programmes of Klaus Tennstedt and Sophia Loren, Gary Kasparov and Elif Shafak (more unlikely bedfellows), as well as Cate Blanchett.

Over on Radio 3, Private Passions (benignly hosted by Michael Berkeley) allows for more of both narrative and music—and the range of the latter is almost as eclectic. Among guests whose choices have inspired me are Philippe Sands, Camilla Pang, Piers Gough, Anne Seba, Vesna Goldsworthy, Natalie Haynes, and Mark Padmore (whose own singing, quite rightly, is a popular choice of many guests).

I can’t narrow possibly down my own playlist of songs, and it doesn’t even include Mahler symphonies or Messiaen

The song of the Italians

anthem 1

I’ve noted the exuberance of national anthems based on the style of Italian opera, notably that of Brazil. But I curiously omitted to pay homage to the Italian anthem, composed by Michele Novaro in 1847 when the concept of “Italy” was still novel. Though it soon became popular, it only became the national anthem in 1946.

With All Due Respect to the spirited renditions of players and spectators, it’s worth relishing it in a polished performance, with three of the six verses (1, 2, and 4):

For anyone not quite ready to sit through an entire Verdi opera, this makes a ready stopgap. The instrumental intro already passes through several moods in quick succession; the song, with its snappy modulation at 0.57, and the fine sequence from 1.18, is just as rousing.

anthem 2

Some of the lyrics may seem a tad niche, all the more so from the mouths of burly athletes—like the openings of verse 1:

Fratelli d’Italia, l’Italia s’è desta, dell’elmo di Scipio s’è cinta la testa.

and 2:

Noi fummo da secoli calpesti, derisi, perché non siam popolo, perché siam divisi.

Verse 4 is rather arcane too:

Dall’Alpi a Sicilia, dovunque è Legnano,
Ogn’uom di Ferruccio ha il core, ha la mano,
I bimbi d’Italia si chiaman Balilla,
Il suon d’ogni squilla i Vespri suonò [noisy Vespas].

And verse 5:

Son giunchi che piegano le spade vendute
Già l’Aquila d’Austria le penne ha perdute [make do with spaghetti then]
Il sangue d’Italia, il sangue Polacco [checks notes]
bevé col cosacco, ma il cor le bruciò.

Yet again, this exhilarating piece, bursting with energy and variety, only underlines the utter tedium of the British anthem (see also Haydn for football). For Italian folk musicking, click here; and do listen to Enza Pagliara!

What’s the craic?

*Part of my series on Irish music!*

Craic pub

I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).

* * *

Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.

Irish session 2

Sitting around the table, taking turns—like in Shanghai silk-and-bamboo teahouses.

So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.

The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).

The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!

Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.

While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):

Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.

The shagbut, minikin, and Flemish clacket

Shagbut

Following my April fools roundup, Nicolas Robertson (creator of the outstanding Anagram tales) fondly recalls a spoof on the Third Programme of BBC Radio, first broadcast in 1968:

The authentically po-voiced announcer’s introduction to the organological details of shagbut, minikin (played by Tatiana Splod), and Flemish clacket recall the mountweazel and the spoof entries of the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians.

Recreating early music does indeed require the modern musician to learn many unfamiliar techniques—a challenge that the pioneers of the movement were not always able to meet. These instruments have been obsolete since the early 16th century, “and of course there are those who hold the view that it would have been rather better if they had remained so”.

Bosch

After tortuous preparation, eventually—and perhaps regrettably—the Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis is (almost) ready to perform the newly-discovered Haro! Poppzgeyen ist das Wieselungslied by Hucbald the Onelegged of Grobhausen. The YouTube illustration of Bosch is aptly chosen.

We apologise to listeners for the technical hitches in the performance. These were partly due to the fact that Mr Turvey and the Schola Polyphonica got stuck in the lift, actually…

Early music has provided a rich source of humour; from this index of WAM drôlerie, see e.g. Mein Gott, A Bach mondegreen, Early music put in its placeThe Mary Celeste, and A music critic.

I haven’t yet succeeded in finding the audio for another Radio 3 programme, first broadcast on April Fools Day:

Parenthesis

Extensive as the BBC Sounds archive is, this is a lacuna that begs to be filled, like Compton Mackenzie’s talk on his meeting with Henry James.

Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers

Gurdjieff 1

As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.

Anyway, I thought I should catch up with George Gurdjieff (c1877–1949; besides various Foundations, see e.g. the websites of the Gurdjieff Heritage Society and the Gurdjieff Legacy Foundation).

Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.

By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.

Gurdjieff cover

Meetings with remarkable men is the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).

I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.

And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.

Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.

While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.

Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.

Gurdjieff 2

To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.

He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.

This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.

Music
Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.

movements
Source.

This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:

and Meditation:

Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.

If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.

It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.

* * *

Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.

A sultry flute duet

Mozart flutes

Aha—with that title I will perhaps manage to offend both flute and clarinet aficionados at once! I’ll try and redeem myself.

The Mozart clarinet quintet appears in my post on Hugh Maguire, and the clarinet concerto is just as sublime. To complement Andrew Marriner’s exquisite solo in the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony with Rozhdestvensky, here he is with the Adagio of the Mozart concerto:

The Rondo finale (below) is full of wonderful chiaroscuro contrasts—solemnity (3.17), and pathos (4.40) with slapstick interludes. But my inspiration for this post is a tiny passage in between (just seven bars, from 4.01, beginning breezily enough at 3.45) that has always entranced me: languid, sultry flutes sustaining hushed low chords, joined by bassoons; upper strings chugging, even chirping; while the clarinet does a little “bad cop­–good cop” routine in low and high registers:

More to relish there: the violins leading into the passage with staccato quavers, taking over from the clarinet’s legato sign-off; and the way the bassoons fill out the flute chords by joining in a bar later:

(clarinet part “in A”, you gather, sounding a minor 3rd lower than written)Mozart

BTW, without going on about original instruments, it’s good to hear the bass notes that Mozart conceived restored on basset clarinet (played here by Tony Pay).

* * *

Under my Mozart medley, you can find many instance of his wonderful writing for winds—not least in the operas and piano concertos. For another telling orchestral detail, try the famous low tuba entry in Mahler 1!
As to numinous flute solos, besides Debussy’s Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune, I think of La flûte enchantée in Ravel’s Shéhérazade, and the finale of Mahler 10 … Looking further afield, Chinese mouth-organs and Irish flutes has a link to a fine Irish flute and fiddle duet. And OK then, the classic Beijing temple style of shengguan ritual ensemble features what I have blithely called flute “arabesques” (audio gallery §14, in sidebar, with commentary here).

Rehearsal and practice

Felix Warnock’s fine memoir opens with a blow-by-blow story of Pierre Boulez subjecting his playing to a mercilessly forensic public examination in front of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This got me thinking about the conventions of orchestral rehearsal.

My remarks below refer to orchestral string players; I don’t know how much of it applies to wind players—who are more like soloists, each playing their own individual part. And all this changes over time, varying both in the UK and around the continent.

Indeed, rehearsal * has changed substantially since the 18th century; the original performers of Bach’s cantatas and Passions were confronted with challenging new music every week, yet rehearsal time was minimal; and after the service they might never play these pieces again. Modern performers are most unauthentic in knowing every corner of the Passions—as I wrote in my article on Bach and Daoist ritual,

Even Bach’s performers never got the chance to get to know them nearly as intimately as Mark Padmore when he sings the Evangelist. Even I have performed both the John and Matthew Passions more in a single week than Bach did in his whole lifetime. And of course we have recordings, which affects not just availability but our expectations of technical “perfection”. When we sight-read an unfamiliar cantata we are being more “authentic” than our own saturation in the Passions. However rigorous our training in baroque style, and however lengthy our experience, they are utterly different from those of Bach’s performers.

Aesthetics changed only gradually through the 19th century, further stimulated in the 20th century by the development of recording technology.

In the UK since at least the 1970s, for standard repertoire (Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and so on) there may be just one single three-hour rehearsal on the day of the concert—although conductors with some clout may be in a position to demand lengthier preparation. Of necessity, British players are renowned for their sight-reading abilities—limited budgets meaning shortage of rehearsal time. There’s safety in numbers, and with any luck tricky string passages will be camouflaged beneath loud wind and brass chords; you can usually busk it (again, unless singled out in rehearsal, as in this story!). Indeed, it can be hard to tell which passages might be tricky until you hear the piece in context. Learning the dots is what rehearsals are for.

In all but the most exceptional cases, it’s considered uncool to take the parts home to practise between rehearsals. Having played a range of music in youth orchestras and then in college, students also prepare with collections of orchestral excerpts. Although most London musicians are freelance, and in many cases don’t have to audition, these collections are useful to help prepare for auditions for a regular job in a symphony orchestra—now they’re revolutionised by online collections, complete with recordings.

Mahler 5
From Mahler 5, 1st movement. Source.

So by the time you get to sit in a professional orchestra, you will have played a lot of the repertoire; moreover, when you come across a piece you haven’t played before, you will be familiar enough with the style to be able to sight-read well.

Brahms 3

Brahms 3, opening. Source.

A young violinist goes for an audition. The leader puts an orchestral excerpt on the stand for him, and he starts hacking away at it gamely. It seems to be going rather well, until reaching the foot of the page, he whips it over, looks up and exclaims breezily, “Good God, this is Brahms 3—I’d never have known!”.

Cf. Musospeak: excuses and bravado.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra, mostly rehearsing (and often performing) in the Maida Vale studios, enjoyed a rather leisurely schedule. But for some other bands such as the RPO it was a matter of pride to cut it fine, ideally staggering in directly from the pub. Still, you could tell if people cared just a bit about a gig—and a conductor—when most of the band was already practising several minutes (!) before the conductor arrived to take the rehearsal.

Symphony musicians were most unlikely to take “the music” home to practise. Such “cheating” wouldn’t endear you to your peers—it made you a kind of teacher’s pet. Backstage before the gig itself, where you’re unlikely to have sheet music with you, practising snippets is just about OK; but wizz-kid violinists soon learn that it’s uncool to show off with their fancy concertos.

The line between the mild panic to which musicians are accustomed and the tedium of over-rehearsal with a pedantic uninspired conductor is illustrated by the diametrically opposite approaches of the great maestro Rozhdestvensky (“Noddy”) and Celibidache. For me, Noddy had an electrifying vision of spontaneous creation, whereas Celi’s espousal of Zen (he’s even cited in the wiki article on the Japanese aesthetic of transience) was surely refuted by his endless nit-picking in rehearsal. Even Carlos Kleiber achieved the magic of his concerts through lengthy rehearsal. The story of the rehearsal where the players asked Noddy if they could possibly just play the piece all the way through just once before the gig is all the more drôle precisely because musicians are always chafing about being subjected to too much rehearsal.

And anyway, the most stressful passages of all are slow, sustained pianissimo, which only become more difficult as the moment of truth approaches. Felix may have been sight-reading, but that wasn’t the problem; what was so excruciating was the exposure in front of everyone. For string players, there may be safety in numbers with the louder, more virtuosic passages, but not with hushed slow writing, where they are especially prone to attacks of the purlies. It’s often easier to play a solo than to play such slow passages in a section of fourteen violinists, when it can be agonising even to try getting the bow on the string, let alone keep it moving. That excerpt above from Mahler 5 may look fiendish, but fiddle players may be more anxious about the Adagietto.

Early music
The world of early music bands since the 1970s is rather different. A keen leader, or conductor, would sometimes ask fixers to send out the parts in advance—which players who had experience of symphony orchestras might find amateurish.

We became accustomed to sectional rehearsals in the National Youth Orchestra, but I don’t recall any in professional symphony orchestras; I sometimes encountered them again in early music. Generally, early music bands get more rehearsal time than symphony orchestras—and for programmes that seem less challenging, at least technically.

In the 1980s’ heyday of the recording industry’s infatuation with early music, the opposite might happen too: at recording sessions for at least one band, you might turn up to play through some obscure Haydn symphony that no-one had ever played before, and the red light would be switched on at once; moreover, some of these takes even ended up on the CD. At least—like our counterparts in the symphonic world—we were immersed in the style, and prepared for eventualities.

World traditions
The wiki article on rehearsal gives an inadvertently apposite list of some other types, such as “wedding guests and couples practising a wedding ceremony, paramedics practising responding to a simulated emergency, or troops practising for an attack using a mock-up of the building”.

The concept of “rehearsal” tends to be elusive in many musical traditions around the world. It adds another layer to the continuum from composition to performance, which the great Bruno Nettl pondered in his work on improvisation.

Rather than rehearsing, young students learn by imitating their masters, often within the family, soon going on to “perform” for life-cycle and calendrical ceremonies. Household Daoists learn their trade from young, including the vocal liturgy and instrumental repertoire, but their skills are gradually consolidated on the job (see e.g. Li Manshan’s recollections in our film, from 9.50). They go through a process of “studying for three years, returning [the debt] for three years”, but from very early in their apprenticeship they are taking part in ritual performance. It’s not even easy to find musicians “practising” individually.

I absorb the fug of the “public house” in rehearsal, Gaoluo 1996.

I found a clearer case in Gaoluo village in the weeks leading up to the New Year rituals, when the large ensemble re-familiarised themselves with the shengguan instrumental repertoire by getting together to recite the gongche solfeggio of the score—partly because as an amateur group that was only in occasional demand for funerals, they might not have played for some time (see Plucking the winds, pp.247–53). 

There seems to be scope for research here; but in all, as Nettl too suggests, perhaps such traditions are not so far from the WAM scene: you learn from young, and then you start taking part in rituals/concerts. In WAM it’s complicated both by having to perform pieces that you might not know and by the chimera of perfection; but for the familiar standard repertoire, one might wonder where rehearsal might come into it. To adapt Laurel and Hardy, here’s another nice mess WAM has gotten itself into (for the Dance of the cuckoos, see here).

Still, WAM musos, for whom the artistic fulfilment of which they dreamed in their teens is often submerged under the pressure and routine of the profession (cf. Ecstasy and drudge), will find few things so satisfying as doing a series of performances on tour of a great work that they’ve been playing for a couple of decades, with an able and inspired conductor who esteems and trusts in the players’ experience—whether Mahler in a symphony orchestra or a HIP Bach Passion.


* As I noted here, in French and Italian the word for rehearsal is répétition/repetizione. The German Probe is suggestively medical. In English, “re-hearse” may sound like putting back into a vehicle to transport the dead—and indeed, there is a connection. It comes from French hercier “to drag, trail along the ground; rake, harrow [land]; rip, tear, wound” [sic!]; 13th-century English borrowed hers from Old French: “a framework, like a harrow, used to hold candles and decorations in place over a coffin”, which by the 17th century became “hearse” in the modern sense.

Perfection is NOT the word for it

Felix cover

A fine new addition to the ethnography of Western Art Music * is

The title alludes to Sir Claus Moser’s diplomatic backstage words to an ageing diva. Both wise and delightful, the book is generously laced with deviant orchestral stories, but it’s much more than that. The blurb hardly does justice to the serious wider issues that Felix covers:

Orchestral life in Britain is thriving and anarchic, in turns chaotic, hilarious, and brutal. ** Perfection Is NOT the word for it is a personal, and mostly affectionate, account of life amongst the extraordinary characters who lead their over-stressed lives in this unusual world, surrounded by music but driven by everyday anxieties, and always defying the best efforts of administrators, bureaucrats, and conductors to tame the unruly beast which is a professional orchestra.

Felix makes a most sympathetic narrator. An orchestral and chamber bassoonist of note (possibly top C, as in The Rite of Spring), he has the rare distinction of having graduated to the role of managing some of the leading early music bands that have shaken up the scene since the 1970s. So while orchestral musos tend to take a dim view of administrators, Felix has the advantage, or misfortune, to have straddled both sides of the fence; he adopts the “poacher turned gamekeeper” metaphor, and one thinks of the common transition from football player to manager.

Chapter 1 opens with a priceless, if harrowing, blow-by-blow account of his first encounter with Pierre Boulez in 1972 upon being summoned at short notice to dep for a rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (his very first professional gig, to boot)—an ordeal which becomes ineluctably more excruciating. After this it may be hard to hear the divine slow movement of the Brahms 1st piano concerto with the same ears. Unlike the viola player singled out during a Mendelssohn rehearsal, Felix didn’t even manage a pithy riposte.

Although his ordeal at the hands of Boulez was exceptional, musicians are keen to get revenge on their overlords by maestro-baiting, of which we are treated to several examples. He also has some good instances of corpsing.

There are cameos from the renowned clarinettist Jack Brymer (an incident that precisely parallels one about the conductor Eric Leinsdorf) and the then rather less renowned Tony Pay (cf. this story). As on tour, and with my fieldwork in China (e.g. here), Felix delights in chains of stories. Alcohol, soon to be a pervasive theme of the book, enters the fray with the BBC’s principal horn Alan Civil—and one might add the wealth of stories about trumpeter John Wilbraham.

The pressures of touring were alleviated by excessive drinking. Felix pays tribute to the “sublimely gifted” violinist Alan Loveday, stories about whose travails with alcohol became legendary. On tour with the Academy of St Martin-in-the Fields (in which Felix played for fifteen years), conductor Neville Marriner had to lock Alan into his hotel room every evening—ensuring that he never once made it onto the concert platform, thus achieving “a feat that many musicians would think ideal, a tour without concerts”.

Loveday

Alan was a talented bridge player, a taste that Felix shared. ••• He eventually took the road to recovery. He was keen to take up period-instrument performance, but never got round to it—as Felix observes, “if sober, he could have brought great critical credibility to this new world”. Felix’s tribute to Alan’s eccentricity and deep love of music leads him to stories about the iconic Francis Baines.

After this heady introduction to the orchestral world, Chapter 2 “An Oxford overture” returns to Felix’s upbringing with a perceptive account of the “tremendous intellectual intensity” of the post-war years there. Second of five children, he was deeply grateful for his education at the Dragon School (“a culture of kindness, politeness, and humanity”, enriched by its bizarre collection of characters on the teaching staff). Less happy at Winchester, he managed to leave school at 16, with the support of his wise mother. In the holidays he attended National Youth Orchestra courses.

Reading between the lines, it must have been through the rational enquiry of his distinguished philosopher parents that he acquired a seriousness and vision that his initial career as bassoon player was unlikely to satisfy. Sitting in on their dinner parties, he also inherited their taste for wordplay.

In Chapter 3, suitably titled “Five in a bar” (which is quite drôle enough without venturing to Tchaikovsky, Brubeck, and Balkan folk music), Felix recalls his happy, if blurred, days in the Albion Ensemble, a wind quintet seemingly modelled on the Famous Five—making a welcome occasional relief from the fraught struggles of the orchestral world. Felix opens the chapter with the convoluted story of a live broadcast for US TV.

It was soon after this lamentable episode (perhaps even because of it) that the Albion Ensemble’s capacity for resilience and self-preservation came to the attention of the British Council.

The quintet was now despatched to “countries in which self-reliance and an ability to deal with the unexpected would be at least as important as giving concerts”. Their adventures began with a five-week tour of the Far East. In China they learn the perils of official banquets (inexplicably, the quintet’s minders didn’t think to introduce them to their counterparts among household Daoists in the north Chinese countryside). In South Korea their provincial travels are given an extra edge by having very little idea of where they were supposed to be when, or how to get there. The quest for alcohol becomes ever more compelling. In the Philippines they succumb in turn to a gory bout of food poisoning, as they pass a hospital bearing the name of “The Antenatal clinic of the Immaculate Conception”.

Chapter 4, “Trials and errors”, takes us to the early music movement (note the work of Richard Taruskin and John Butt), in which Felix played a major role both as player and manager. The 1980s were a golden age for London’s freelancers, stimulated by the new CD format, film sessions, and touring; still, Felix was feeling the fragility of freelancing, “a house of cards which could collapse at the slightest unfavourable gust”.

Inspired by the innovations of Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, and Brüggen, he now expanded into “period instrument” performance. We find erudite notes on reviving the French bassoon that had lost out to its German counterpart; and on pitch standards adopted by the movement (a=415 being a fair compromise for the wide range used in baroque times, whereas a=430 for the classical era was a concoction imposed by Decca at an Academy of Ancient Music meeting).

Felix spent a period on the Music Advisory Panel of the Arts Council, entrusted with the task of finding a niche for WAM in a diverse market, which gave him serious reservations about box-ticking PC and committees’ fear of elitism. I’m sure he could offer a detailed critique of my own argument in What is serious music?!; indeed, my global view is All Very Well, but promoters inevitably find themselves having to fight for their particular corner of the bazaar.

Meanwhile he took a correspondence law course. Felix and his wife Julie eventually mastered the invidious competition for adoption, learning to guess the expected answers to rigorous questionnaires.

In Chapter 5 Felix recounts the invention of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment from 1985 (I was glad to learn that it was Chris Hogwood who coined its alternative name Age of Embezzlement). As Felix reflected,

London’s freelance musicians had achieved a remarkably dominant international position in period instrument performance but were now in danger of becoming stuck at their current level of (relative) mediocrity.

The various orchestras were closely identified with their founders (Hogwood, Pinnock, Gardiner, Norrington, and so on), but the pool of performers overlapped. “Our owners/proprietors were building international reputations based on the numerous recordings which we, the humble workers, had been making for them”. Meanwhile there was no platform in London for the great continental directors like Harnoncourt, Leonhardt, Brüggen, and Kujken; moreover, the scene, dominated by “semi-conductors” (in Norman Lebrecht’s fine term), was closed to “real” maestros from the modern symphonic world who might offer new insights into the repertoire, like Charles Mackerras (for whose splendid anagram, click here), S-Simon Rattle, and Mark Elder.

This led to the forming of a new orchestra that would engage its conductors, not the other way around. The financial challenge was daunting. But the success of Rattle’s concert performance of Idomeneo in 1987 led to an annual summer residency at Glyndebourne, and record contracts were soon secured. By 1988 Felix found himself managing the orchestra, negotiating projects with institutions like the South Bank Centre and the Proms while attempting to entice the busy continental maestros who had originally inspired him. 

Left, Frans Brüggen; right, Trevor Pinnock.

By 1993, amidst difficult decisions over the orchestra’s personnel, Felix had to resign. From 1995 he managed the English Concert, which he found himself having to re-invent, as described in Chapter 6. Under the benevolent Trevor Pinnock the orchestra had thrived, but their recording contract was soon to expire, and another identity crisis loomed. Whereas Felix’s challenge at the OAE had been to create a clear and sustainable identity after a frenetic set-up, here the issue was the mirror image: “how to create a new and exciting identity for an already-successful organisation in danger of being overtaken by younger competitors”. But, as he reflects, the two orchestras did have one thing in common: neither had any money.

The English Concert had a remarkable success in staging Haydn’s puppet opera Philemon und Baucis. Here Felix gives another nice aside on the history of marionette theatre in England and on the continent; and he notes the relatively recent tradition of orchestral string sections using the same bowings.

Felix wrestles with fiendish logistics for the US tour of the Brandenburg concertos. At post-concert receptions he finds himself in the role of grown-up, nervously observing the players’ antics, with which he is all too familiar. Organising a Matthew Passion tour around concerts in Spain presents further scheduling challenges. Much as we love the bars there (and I, at least, love the flamenco), travelling around is indeed gruelling, as a later “tour from hell” confirmed (for the steady erosion of touring, see note here).

AM&RP

With Trevor Pinnock retiring, and the inspired leader Rachel Podger also leaving, Felix was delighted to find the equally prodigious Andrew Manze to direct the band from the violin. Rachel and Andrew’s Bach double at the Proms is one of my most treasured moments; and on tour, apart from his inspired playing, while we were waiting at Chicago airport Andrew told me one of my very favourite stories, which you can find here.

But while Felix envisaged a return to baroque music, in which the English Concert had made its mark, Andrew was now keen to pursue the fashion for a later repertoire, as he began to set his sights on conducting. With the 2008 recession causing further problems for festivals and promoters, Felix moved on again. Meanwhile his swansong on the bassoon came when he too achieved the ideal of appearing in an orchestra without having to play in it, miming in costume for a TV re-enactment of Handel’s Water music in a barge on the Thames. ****

Chapter 7, “Double bar: when the music stops”. After leaving the English Concert, Felix worked to find funding for some other projects—including an unfulfilled plan to restore the Notting Hill Coronet cinema to its original function as a music theatre. The building turned out to be owned by the Elim Church, whose largest congregation was at the Kensington Temple nearby—prompting another fine graffiti story. But by this time Felix was seeking a path away from the world of music. Having long served on the Music Advisory Panel of the Radcliffe Trust, he now joined the board of trustees, soon becoming chairman, still devising new projects. Again he offers thoughts on the bureaucratic dangers of the “Age of Regulation”. *****

It’s such a pleasure to read Felix’s memoir, by turns revealing, wise, and hilarious—sometimes all at once. Rush out and buy this book!


* Note e.g. Christopher Small’s Musicking, and Bruno Nettl’s Heartland excursions; see also Professional music-making in London (Stephen Cottrell); and for New York, Mozart in the jungle (Blair Tindall). Cf. Deviating from behavioural norms (links there including the kangaroo and sardine stories; more in the WAM category under “early music” and “humour”), and Alternative Bach.

** For punctuation nerds: as is my editorial wont, I supply the Oxford comma in such lists—all the more suitable given Felix’s background (albeit depriving us of the pleasures of formulations like “I would like to thank my parents, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Madonna”).

While I’m here, the absence of an index is most regrettable (see The joys of indexing). I hereby provide a sample, should my services be required for a future edition (cf. my draft index for Nicolas Robertson’s magnificent anagram tales, and even that for unlikely place-names to find in a blog dominated by Daoist ritual):index 1
index 2
*** Bridge made another pleasurable pastime for musos on tour, playing on the back of a bus, and at airports—again suitably lubricated by alcohol. As Felix has learned to his cost when I partner him across the baize, my bidding skills are far inferior to his; month after month he patiently talks me through the fiendish opening bid of the multi 2 diamonds, knowing full well that I’m never going to get the hang of it (cf. A grand slam). You gather, of course, that my review of this book is informed by having played a minor role (again, allegedly, not always entirely sober) in many of the musical débacles that Felix evokes.

**** In my own early days depping for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, they would occasionally find they had booked too many extras, so they had to pay me not to play the violin—which, as my colleagues would agree, was most worthwhile (cf. “We are very lucky that your violin was broken”).

***** In a Coda from early 2018, Felix explains in apparently rational detail his support for Brexit—a choice that mystified most of his friends (cf. The C-word). Instead, here his readers might prefer a survey of changes since the 1960s to the hand-to-mouth existence of orchestral players (for whom Brexit is the latest disaster), and the gradual transition from the “knit your own yogurt” ethos of the early pioneers to a more polished “Chanel No.5” style—an account that he would be well placed to write.

 

 

Mahler swings!

Adagietto 1

Adagietto 2

I yield to no-one in my veneration for Mahler 5, some great renditions of which I’ve provided here—irreverently introduced by a version of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo on rubber chicken…

In distressingly similar vein, I’ve just had a vision of how Mahler might have revised the sublime Adagietto had he lived through to the 1930s (as he should have done) to arrange it as a catchy up-tempo number for a New York swing band, with blaring horn section (led, perhaps, by Buck Clayton) and zany syncopations, largely dispensing with the sentimental appoggiaturas.

So here’s my preliminary draft of the melody on horns, leaving you to fill in the boogie-woogie bass-line, drum-kit, and funky sax harmonies—it works even better with the hushed original opening bar and a half:

Adagietto swing

Actually, Mahler’s choice of key works well for jazz winds, making one suspect that the original was just a preliminary sketch—after all, if you’re writing a slow love song for strings, whoever would plump for F major rather than E major or F♯ major?!

As to tempo, one might regard the two versions of the Adagietto as the opposite of what happened to the music of the Tang court after it was exported to Japan, where it began a long process of retardation.

Resting caseThe big-band arrangement would also suit a turbo-charged Balkan brass band like Fanfare Ciocârlia. I can’t take responsibility for my wayward visions, but I realise WAM purists (bless) may be alarmed. Conversely, composers from Bach to Mahler did often creatively recycle their previous work. Bach has inspired a wealth of jazz and world arrangements; and folk and popular musics were intrinsic elements in Mahler’s sound world (see e.g. under the 4th symphony). I rest my case.

As I observed with reference to the musician’s fantasy of performing Always look on the bright side of life as encore to the Matthew Passion, we come to accept such cognitive dissonance. Or at least I do.

Not merely as an attempt to redeem myself, now we must go back to Mahler’s original version—within the context of the whole glorious symphony. I’m also constantly amazed at the second movement, its turbulent trauma punctuated by the hushed cello recitative.

You can find links to my series on Mahler here—extending to chamber arrangements and Mahler’s own piano rolls. Among many movies that incorporate the Adagietto, do watch Tampopo! And here’s a roundup of my series on jazz. For the “Ming-dynasty bebop” of the Hua family shawm band in China, with A/V and analysis, click here.

Ray Man, pioneer of Chinese musicking in London

with a homage to Cantonese music and jazz in Soho

RM 2022 for blog

Ray Man at home, 2022.

The splendid Ray Man (文賢慶, b.1937) has been a pillar of the Chinese music scene in the UK since he arrived from Hong Kong in 1956. It’s been many years since we met up, but it was delightful to visit him again recently at his house in Chalk Farm, listening as he recalled the old days with his quirky sense of humour. His story illustrates profound social and musical changes in the UK, Hong Kong, and mainland China. [1]

Ray’s early life in Hong Kong
Ray was brought up in rural San Tin in the New Territories, just south of Shenzhen (then still a sleepy little town!). The Wen lineage was the dominant clan there. Ray’s early memories are of hiding from the Japanese troops after they invaded Hong Kong in 1941. His father was a seaman who went on to trade rice in Singapore; imprisoned by the Japanese, he was only released when his father-in-law (who had long emigrated to New York) paid a huge ransom. But he lost his business, and after the war it was some time before he could return home; he was now suffering from TB.

HK Fan He
“Work and play”, from the iconic albums of Fan He.

In San Tin living conditions were poor. After the surrender of the Japanese, Ray moved with his mother to Kowloon in 1946, helping her with a little homemade catering enterprise, delivering congee and snacks.

HK Cantonese opera 1950s
Hong Kong club, 1950s. Source.

At the age of 9, while reading a cartoon book in a stairwell, Ray was entranced by hearing a blind busker playing a plaintive melody on yewu [yehu] 椰胡 coconut fiddle. He began frequenting the bustling area around Temple street, [2] where a variety of entertainments could be heard, such as the naamyam ballads sung by teahouse bards. Ray had absorbed Cantonese opera from infancy, perching on his mother’s back at New Year in the village; his older brother was a great fan, so now Ray too went along to clubs to relish the drama. He borrowed a violin (evocatively transcribed as 梵鈴), by then a popular member of the Cantonese ensemble, and picked up yehu and gaohu fiddles, as well as various plucked lutes.

Ray finds his feet in the UK
Following the British Nationality Act of 1948, waves of immigrants arrived in the UK from the Pearl River Delta—mostly male, and single, working in Chinese restaurants (wiki: here and here).

Through his old seafaring connections, Ray’s father, in frail health, reached London in 1955. In late 1956 Ray himself borrowed the princely sum of £165 for his own passage to the UK, boarding a ship with only his violin, Chinese yewu, and banjo; after forty-five days at sea he was less than pleased to find himself having to disembark in Marseilles (cf. Nearly an Italian holiday). Eventually he made his way on to London, finding the new Chinese community in Soho, which, as restaurant work supplanted seafaring, had recently replaced their original base of Limehouse—potent material for the racist fantasy embodied by Fu Manchu (see e.g. here, and here).

Limehouse 1911
Limehouse, 1911.

Musicians from China had performed in 19th-century London, but I haven’t found early evidence of musical life among its small settled Chinese community. In Soho Ray soon observed the gambling habits of Chinatown and acquainted himself with the Chinese Workers’ Association. There he took out his violin to play a little piece of Cantonese music to the old folks sitting around. When they all stopped what they were doing, he too broke off, thinking “I play something wrong?”. Far from it: “Hey, why you stop? Keep going—never hear something like that before!”

Here’s a solo by the celebrated Hong Kong violinist Yin Zizhong 尹自重 (1903–85), from the heyday of Cantonese music:

1956 club for blog
The “London Co-operative Workers’ Association Music Group”, late 1956;
Ray (holding violin) is fourth from right.

Just a few days after arriving in London, Ray was recruited to an ersatz group to be shown on BBC TV, portraying a sanitised image of the London Chinese community—all spruced up in smart suits and ties, a far cry from the drudgery of their real lives. Ray was the youngest, and as he recalls with a chuckle, though apparently the only one in the photo not playing, he was the only real musician in the band—“they no play anything at all!”. When they told him the group was going to appear on television (which indeed was still in its infancy), he asked, “What’s that?!”

As Chinese and Indian restaurants began to provide jaded British palates with a welcome relief from their drab post-war diet, Ray took work where he could find it, mainly as waiter and cook around the north of England—Hull, Manchester, and York; he remembers Bradford as particularly poor.

Back in Hong Kong he had enjoyed the sound of the saxophone in the Cantonese opera ensemble. While working in the first Chinese restaurant in Belfast he paid £165 for his first sax, taking part in jazz bands. He was startled to have to fork out £920 for his second one, paying it off by HP instalments.

After learning to drive in Newcastle in 1957, in Soho Ray spent some time as a driving instructor: “That’s right, I was the first driving instructor—in history!”, he chortles; “All my students were gamblers and gangsters!”. But he managed to avoid being ensnared by the Triad mafia.

Meanwhile Ray’s father was still suffering from the effects of TB, and Ray spent a stressful time finding treatment for him on the impressive new NHS—which enabled him to live until 1998.

A fast learner, Ray was hard-working, easy-going, and popular. Quite soon he had aspirations to become his own boss. By now his mother was living with her father in New York; they encouraged Ray to come and join them there, and he was tempted—not least by the prospect of learning to play jazz on the sax. That would have been a different story altogether (“That would have been a different story”). Instead, his jazz idols came to Soho.

The 1960s: swinging London
By now the Soho jazz scene was beginning to take off. In 1959 Ronnie Scott opened his club in the basement of 39 Gerard street.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott’s, original venue. Source.

From 1962 Ronnie’s began hosting jazzmen from the USA, working round the ban on overseas musicians. Just up the road was Ray’s restaurant—which itself soon served as an after-hours nightclub for jazzers still on a high, needing to keep jamming after they staggered out of Ronnie’s at 3am. There Ray loved hearing great artists like his idol Ben Webster—here he is with Ronnie in A night in Tunisia (1965, as part of BBC2’s Jazz 625 series):

BTW, Ben Webster took the first solo in Billie Holiday‘s astounding 1957 TV appearance, the all-time most moving jazz video (click here—part of my extensive jazz series)!!!

Billie
Billie entranced by Ben Webster’s playing.

Ray was captivated by the new sound, so very different from the slick commercial pop music of the day. Himself a migrant from a poor rural background, he identified with the way that black people gave voice to their hard life, infused by the blues, “singing from the heart” (as later did Liu Sola, from her very different background). Later, during my time with the band, Ray was bemused and amused by the raised eyebrows of patrons when the splendid Black British percussionist Reggie took part.

Ronnie with KirksOriginal caption (source):
Mrs Edith Kirk smiles at Ronnie Scott as he holds a glass of wine and stands alongside
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, outside Ronnie Scotts’ [sic!] Jazz Club,
39 Gerrard Street, London circa 1963.

Recalling the blind street musicians of his youth in Hong Kong, another jazzer whom Ray much admired was the blind sax player Roland Kirk. Here he is at Ronnie’s in 1964:

Doubtless those early sessions also gave Ray his lasting taste for the “jazz cigarette”. At the same time, he is well aware that trying to make a living from making music is a fraught and insecure life. While unable to transcend mundane concerns (like Henry James!), he is devoted to the amateur ideal of Chinese music, aspiring to the simple life with a kind of detachment that now reminds me of my Daoist master Li Manshan.

One day at the club Ray received a visit from a cheery plainclothes sergeant from Holborn CID. “We’ve been watching you for the last six months, Ray. My partner’s crazy about your place. Enjoy it! Just slip us a hundred quid now and then, there’s a good fellow…”

Opening the shop
By 1967, as the jazz scene was catering to rather more salubrious patrons, Ronnie’s had moved to its present venue in Frith street. Ray lost a lot of money in 1969 with his older brother on an ambitious project to organise “the first professionally-organised, full-length Cantonese opera in London”, but they now managed to set up a takeaway together. In 1972 Ray took on a little restaurant at a prime location in Covent Garden just across from Chinatown, on the corner of Earlham street. He began by selling instruments from a corner of the restaurant, with a display in the window looking onto Shaftesbury avenue. Soon this promised to become a business on its own.

RM shop
Ray’s shop, 1982.

Another guest at Ronnie’s was the versatile jazzman Yusuf Lateef—here he is live in 1966:

Yusuf Lateef’s music often featured oriental instruments such as shawms, flutes, and bells (e.g. Eastern sounds, 1961), and later he used to augment his collection at Ray’s shop. It was he who introduced John Coltrane to Inayat Khan’s book on Sufi music which a mystically-inclined fellow violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me in 1978—just around the time I was playing in Ray’s band! 

Our paths converge
On Sunday afternoons Ray got a band together to rehearse for occasional appearances at Chinese community events. The musicians were then still largely second-generation immigrants or recent arrivals from Hong Kong, some just passing through.

While Ray was gradually accommodating a more “pan-Chinese” style, his own culture was rooted in Cantonese opera and instrumental pieces. In Hong Kong and Guangzhou, the youthful genre of “Cantonese music” had been remarkably innovative through the Republican period, incorporating jazz-tinged violin, guitar, sax, and zany xylophone (cf. Shanghai jazz). Click here for a playlist with nine LPs of the great Lü Wencheng 呂文成 with his band, issued between 1957 and 1967. There’s more to Cantonese music than meets the ear—here’s a fine traditional rendition of Shuangsheng hen 雙聲恨 (“Double voicing of bitterness”), based on the plangent yi-fan mode (with brief excursions into more cheerful scales), with a trio led by Yin Zizhong, c1930: [3]

In 1972, as the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were subsiding, I began studying ancient Chinese at Cambridge under Denis Twitchett, often visiting Laurence Picken there to learn about Tang music—at a time when Chinese music seemed to reside solely between the pages of history books, and the survival of any traditional cultures in mainland China was a matter of guesswork. In those days, blinkered by my classical training, I had little idea of either jazz or folk (cf. What is serious music?!). While my listening tastes in Asian music were for Indian raga, visiting Ray’s shop gave me my first inklings of how a living Chinese musical tradition might sound.

By now I had begun picking up the erhu fiddle. On my visits to Soho and Chinatown, besides finding books on Zen and Daoism at Watkins in Cecil court, I would browse in the recently-opened Guanghwa bookshop. Among the Chinese books there, alongside collections of model operas, revolutionary songs, and the occasional pamphlet on imperial culture (mostly fulminating against Confucius), I found a tutorial for the erhu and a couple of collected scores of modern solos. That was how I first acquainted myself with cipher notation—but I would learn more through emulating the nuance of Ray’s playing.

RM band c1979
With Ray Man’s band for Chinese New Year at Imperial College, early 1980s
(the music-stands revealing our novice status!).
Ray in the middle on plucked lute, me second left on erhu.

After graduating in 1976 I settled in London, working in orchestras under maestros like Boulez and Rozhdestvensky while continuing to help Laurence Picken on his Music from the Tang court project. It was through taking part in Ray’s Sunday sessions that I got used to playing the erhu in ensemble. All this was long before I first began visiting China in 1986, coming to realise the huge variety of regional cultures and joining in sessions at silk-and-bamboo clubs in Shanghai.

Ray’s shop was “like a bazaar”, as The Asia magazine described it. There he began offering tuition on a range of instruments. In 1975 he married Manyee, who had recently arrived from Hong Kong; they went on to have three children. Ray must have had a certain flair for business, but soon he could let Manyee take on the daily business of running the shop while he sat sage-like in the basement studio, surrounded by his instruments and the fug of herbal substances, his eyes always sparkling. A true aficionado, his English has remained engagingly impressionistic, as has his Mandarin. I guess I imagined him as a kind of musical Lee Chong.

Since the 1980s
The early Chinese communities around the UK had largely been Cantonese-speaking immigrants; even in the 1980s mainland Chinese voices were still rarely to be heard on the streets (for fictional treatments of Chinese lives in London, click here).

The insular dominance of the Cantonese community in the UK might have lasted longer had it not been for the death of Mao, the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the ensuing dismantling of the commune system, which paved the way for the spectacular emergence of mainland China after decades of isolation, reverberating widely. Soon, as people arrived from all over China to study or do business, Mandarin was commonly heard on the streets of London. Gradually, as restaurant workers moved out to the suburbs, along with the wider transformation of Soho, the Cantonese focus of Ray’s band was diluted.

Back in the homeland too, amidst radical social change—both in postwar Hong Kong and in mainland China (following both the 1949 Communist takeover and the 1980s’ liberalisations)—“Cantonese music” lost much of its energy, becoming stultified in polished renditions on the concert platform. [4]

As “world music” became A Thing, Ray’s Soho shop continued broadening to stock a wide array of instruments from around the globe, and stars from the pop and film music scenes (George Harrison, Elton John, Björk, Noel Gallagher…) began visiting in search of exotic sounds.

RM Chalk Farm shopThe shop in Chalk Farm.

In 1999 the shop relocated to Chalk Farm, opposite Camden market, catering to the growing market in ethnic instruments; but in 2020 it was forced to close by the pandemic.

Whereas the Bhavan centre makes a well-supported focus for Indian expressive culture in west London, with fine visiting musicians teaching and performing a range of genres, London lacks a comparable venue for Chinese music. Numerous community associations have been formed; New Year brings out a parade of pan-Chinese lion and dragon dancing around Chinatown; Cheng Yu maintains a forum for the literati world of qin and pipa, and the “pan-Chinese” style that had evolved out of silk-and-bamboo. But Ray’s dream of a London Chinese music centre has remained unfulfilled. Similar initiatives in Chinese musicking have been held in the communities of Liverpool and Manchester, again broadening out from their original Cantonese base. If only south Fujian immigrants (a significant component of the later UK Chinese demographic) had a community maintaining the venerable amateur art of nanyin, for instance; but for such regional traditions we can only look to China itself.

From 1986, when I finally began exploring China, my fieldwork soon came to focus mainly on ritual life in poor northern villages, leading me to Gaoluo and the Li family Daoists. But it was Ray who first opened up that world to me, and I still feel grateful for my early exposure to Cantonese music with him—rather as he seems to have continued recreating the dream of his early musical inspirations in Hong Kong.

With many thanks to Ray and Manyee


[1] In addition to chatting with Ray and his wife Manyee, I’ve consulted various early press cuttings, notably an article in The Asia magazine (29th August 1982).

[2] For the transformation of Temple street in later decades, see e.g. this 2011 documentary.

[3] Chapter 15 of my 1995 book Folk music of China has a basic survey, along with various genres in Guangdong province; the Shuangsheng hen recording (transcribed on p.360) is #15 of the CD with the 1998 paperback edition, or #8 of disc 2 of my 2-CD set China: folk instrumental traditions. Many thanks to Yuan Jingfang, who introduced me to a range of genres at the Central Conservatoire, Beijing, in 1987.

[4] See also The folk-conservatoire gulf. For the changing times of Hong Kong musicking, note the research of scholars such as Bell Yung (including Cantonese opera: performance as creative process, ch.4) and Yu Siu-wah 余少華. Opera played a prominent role for early Cantonese immigrant communities in north America (cf. sites linked under A Daoist temple in California); and click here for Cantonese music societies in Vancouver since the 1930s.

La voix humaine

BH LVH

Back home from Istanbul, my ears still buzzing with Bektashi–Alevi ritual and the call to prayer, I went along to the Barbican to be astounded yet again at the innovative genius of Barbara Hannigan with the LSO (programme notes here).

They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.

After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.

This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:

Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.

Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.

Duval Voix

Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):

Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.

This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:


* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:

Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”

Doof doof

Doof Doof

I was tickled by a recent headline in OK! magazine:

OK

There’s the ultimate DOOF DOOF:

What if EastEnders isn’t real?? Like, if they’re all… acting??

Confession: I’ve never been able to interpret the doof doofs. How do we hear the rhythm—how would you beat time to it? Or is it a free-tempo prelude? I guess most EastEnders fans don’t talk in such fancy terms, so such online talk as I’ve seen is limited to a fatuous debate over how many doof doofs there are (nine, obvs), irrespective of rhythm. More to the point, can people keep a regular beat to it?

We have an Urtext of Simon May’s melody from 1985. The synth drums were added to the opening in 1994, in a version that remained in use until 2009, when he rescored the theme tune to include a stronger drum beat and additional percussion. But I haven’t seen a score for the doof doofs. Because one’s ears (rightly) want it to be a 4/4 bar, like the following melody, somehow I’ve always heard the first three drumbeats as a triplet:

Doof triplets

That’s close—but a more accurate rendition, as I am reliably informed by a talented drummer, is

Doof

That opening syncopation, even before a tempo has been established, must confuse other listeners besides me. Still, EastEnders addicts evidently take it in their stride, like Aretha fans with the triple-time insert in the chorus of I say a little prayer, or Turkish dancers with aksak limping metre—or, now I come to think of it, music lovers everywhere…

The opening of Beethoven 5 may sound to the casual listener like a triplet upbeat—as PDQ Bach observes in his illuminating commentary, “I don’t know if it’s slow or fast, cos it keeps stopping, folks… doesn’t seem to be able to get off the ground” (NB also Creative tribulations).

A comparison that springs to mind (OK, my mind) is the luopu motif that opens and closes the hymns of the Li family Daoists (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.280; examples in our film, e.g. 1.01.56). In this post the motif is mainly a pretext to tell a story about the singularly unimaginative opening of the Beethoven violin concerto on timpani—which would be much enlivened by replacing it with the Doof Doof.

Most rhythmically satisfying of all is the Pearl and Dean theme tune!

Bach’s Epiphany

Bach composed the six cantatas of his Christmas Oratorio to be performed on six separate feast days, starting with the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, the final instalment on Epiphany on 6th January—which is today! We can relish the whole cycle in John Eliot Gardiner’s performance at Weimar at the start of the Bach cantata pilgrimage.

In Part Six, The Adoration of the Magi, I’ve been thinking of the exquisite aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen. Here’s an earlier performance from 1987, with Nancy Argenta:

For the musician, the inner parts are captivating to play.

Nur ein Wink

Nur ein Wink text

And then the whole final sequence is astounding, with the tenor aria accompanied by oboes d’amore, with the following recitative by the vocal quartet, leading to the final chorale with vertiginous trumpet!!!

Xmas quartetFor more Epiphany cantatas, click here; and for the bluegrass fiddling at the opening of the Journey of the Magi, here. See also A Bach retrospective.

Roundup for 2021!

Emma Leylah

As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.

Some essential posts:

I’m going to emulate Stella Gibbons and award *** to some other *MUST READ!* posts too…

China: on the Li family Daoists, recent and older posts are collected in

and it’s always worth reminding you to watch our film

Elsewhere,

Tributes to three great sinologists:

The beleaguered cultures of the

  • Uyghurs (posts collected here) and
  • Tibetans (posts collected here), including

I’ve begun a growing series on Turkey (with a new tag for west/Central Asia):

Among this year’s additions to the jazz, pop, punk tags are

WAM:

Bach (added to the roundup A Bach retrospective):

as well as

On “world music” and anthropology:

On gender (category here, with basic subheads):

Germany:

Italy:

Britain (see also The English, home and abroad), and the USA:

More on stammering:

On a lighter note:

Even just for this last year, I realise there’s a lot to read there, but do click away on all the links! And I can’t resist reminding you of some of my earlier favourites, notably

Ma Yuan

Not such a white Christmas: Balthasar

Bosch

Picture yourself in a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies

Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?

And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,

The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοιmágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίανoikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.

In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.

Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.

Durer
Dürer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1504.

Another article refers to the research of Paul Kaplan, Cord Whitaker, and Kristen Collins with Bryan Keene. As Geraldine Heng noted:

The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.

This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).

Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.

Cf. the widespread image of the Black Madonna. See also Esther Chadwick’s review of the collection Black in Rembrandt’s time, focusing on the Afro-Atlantic community in Amsterdam.

Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:

Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.

Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.

Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus

Vingt regards CD cover

Continuing my series on Olivier Messiaen (starting here, with most links), and following last Christmas’s offering of La nativité du Seigneur, I’m finally immersing myself in the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus—composed in 1944 after Messiaen’s release from POW camp and during the liberation of Paris.

I find Joanna MacGregor’s notes a useful companion, supplementing the evocative images that Messiaen provides in the score with her own insights as a performer—pointing out flashes of boogie-woogie, Tibetan trumpets, calypso, the fluttering of angels’ wings… And regarding the birdsong that constantly decorates Messiaen’s spiritual vision, as MacGregor observes, in their proximity to God, birds can be gentle, sleepy, cheeky, melodic, hilarious, quarrelsome, triumphant. Too bad Messiaen never got to Spread the Word on Twitter Twitter

He composed the cycle for Yvonne Loriod—her complete recording, with score, is here. Among other pianists, Jean-Rodolphe Kars has a particular affinity with Messiaen’s spirituality, as is clear from his testimony, written after he was ordained in 1981—here’s his wondrous live performance from 1976, on the eve of his conversion:

Messiaen details the themes that pervade the work:

  • Thème de Dieu, in the unifying key of F sharp major, further enriched by Messiaen’s favourite extatique added-sixth chord
  • Thème de l’amour mystique
  • Thème de l’étoile et de la croix
  • Thème d’accords.

Theme of God

Thème de Dieu at the opening.

In style, images, and material, the cycle constantly foreshadows Turangalîla, both opulent and ascetic. While all the visions are enthralling, I particularly relish

  • 1 Regard du Père—hypnotic, with “gently reiterated C sharps in the right hand giving us the first glimpse of the gamelan”
  • 5 Regard du Fils sur le Fils—contemplation adorned with birdsong
  • 6 Par Lui tout a été fait—virtuosity culminating in the Thème de Dieu, victorieux et agité, combining with the Thème de l’amour mystique
  • 10 Regard de l’Esprit de joie—equivalent to the exhilarating 5th movement of Turangalîla, “a clash of Western jazziness with Hindu dance rhythms”; here it is played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard:

  • 15 Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus—“the bringing-together of spirituality and sensuality: of Roman Catholic iconography and Eastern eroticism”
  • 19 Je dors, mais mon coeur veille—the heart of the meditation, basking in F sharp major; played here by Joanna MacGregor:

—leading to the massive finale Regard de l’Église d’amour, which brings together “all the themes, angels, birds, bells, gongs, and tam-tams that we’ve heard in the previous two hours”.

Click here for a precious film of Messiaen himself improvising on the Nativity at the Saint-Trinité organ in 1985!

Liu Sola, voice of alternative China

Ever since the 1980s, Liu Sola (刘索拉, b.1955) has remained an invigorating alternative voice in both Chinese music and literature.

The main websites are here (with this fine survey of her ouevre, cited below) and here.

Sola and motherSola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.

Sola CCM 1978 for blog
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.

In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).

Sola popAfter graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was

irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.

By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.

London and New York
In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.

Sola Vini
With Vini Reilly, 1988.

Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.

In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.

Sola Chaos

Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):

Sola painting

After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.

Sola Blues CD

In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:

In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.

Back in the PRC
After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she

cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.

In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:

The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.

Sola operaFrom The afterlife of Li Jiantong.

Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.

Here’s a short CCTV documentary:

* * *

Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing, and Rock it, mom), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.

Lexicon of musical invective

Slonimsky

You really must read Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective! An anthology of critical assaults on composers since Beethoven’s time, it cites a wealth of “biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements”. *

Having mentioned the book’s magnificent “Invecticon” in The joys of indexing, in various posts I gave quotations from scathing early reviews that Slonimsky cites:

Invecticon

(As the glosses by a Chinese friend suggest, a wacky challenge for language learning…)

* * *

In his thoughtful prelude, “Non-acceptance of the unfamiliar”, Slonimsky reflects on critical incomprehension, under various rubrics such as racism, lack of melody, and noise.

In the minds of righteous reactionaries, musical modernism is often associated with criminality and moral turpitude.

As he observes,

A fairly accurate timetable could be drawn for the assimilation of unfamiliar music by the public and the critics. It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty years to elevate it to a masterpiece. Not every musical monstrosity is a potential musical masterpiece, but its chances of becoming one are measurably better than those of a respectable composition of mediocre quality.

He cites George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1910:

It is not easy for a musician of today to confess that he once found Wagner’s music formless, melodyless, and abominably discordant; but that many musicians, now living, did so is beyond all question. […] The technical history of modern harmony is a history of growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians.

* * *

Slonimsky suggests parallels with critical reactions to other modernist trends, including painting, women’s suffrage, and science. Another well-covered topic that he also addresses is outrage at the rise of jazz. As early as 1899 the Musical courier exclaimed:

A wave of vulgar, filthy, and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cake-walk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures. […] Our children, our young men and women, are continually exposed to the contiguity, to the monstrous attrition of this vulgarising music. It is artistically and morally depressing, and should be suppressed by press and pulpit.

He cites the Most Reverend Francis J. L. Beckman’s address to the National Council of Catholic Women in 1938, in line with Nazi assaults on “degenerate music”:

Jam sessions, jitterbugs, and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!

Back in 1805, the waltz attracted similar opprobrium:

Waltz is a riotous German dance of modern invention. Having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.


* Slonimsky acknowledges an 1877 antecedent in Wilhelm Tappert’s generously-titled Ein Wagner-Lexicon, Wörterbuch der Unhöflichkeit, enthaltend grobe, höhnende, gehässige und verleumderische Ausdrücke welche gegen den Meister Richard Wagner, seine Werke und seine Anhänger von den Feinden und Spöttern gebraucht worden sind, zur Gemütsergötzung in müssigen Stunden gesammelt.

Cf. Some German mouthfuls, and A justly neglected composer.

Sombre and incandescent

C minor and E major

Bach Sarabande

In his masterly companion to the Bach cello suites, Steven Isserlis mentions composers’ attraction to the sombre key of C minor.

Mozart

Besides the final movements of Bach’s own Passions, he cites Mozart’s Mass and piano concerto K491, and I think also of the slow movements of the E flat concertos K 271 and K482, as well as the Wind Serenade and the Andante of the Sinfonia concertante (above); and Schubert’s Quartettsatz. Steven goes on to list Brahms 1, and Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.

* * *

Hesi pai score

By contrast, composers have been inspired by the incandescent splendour of E major (the basic key of the north Chinese ritual shengguan ensemble!—e.g. here, §2), as in

and (a rare appearance for Wagner on this blog) the Siegfried idyll, conducted here by Celibidache:

Messiaen goes even further in his devotion to the sensuality of F sharp major, such as in Turangalîlathe intimate sixth movement and the cosmic finale—and the Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. But perhaps that’s another story.

DO click on the links to listen in awe to all of them!

Music in the time of Vermeer

Given how few of his paintings survive (and how small they are!), the Essential Vermeer website is a vast repository. Covering a remarkable amount of ground in depth—with sections on Dutch and Delft painting and Vermeer’s own works, his life and family, Delft and Vermeer’s neighbourhood, maps, research guides, and much more—it leads us far beyond any narrow definition of art history.

Adelheid Rech documents in detail both art and folk musics (categories that were not yet rigidly opposed—cf. Popular culture in early modern Europe), exploring how genres and instruments were used in social life, with many audio examples.

Art music
Rech addresses the musical life of the elite as depicted in Vermeer’s paintings, with a series of introductory essays followed by pages on (art) music in Delft, music for the theatre, and patrons (notably Constantijn Huygens, De Muiderkring, and the Duarte family). This leads to substantial sections on the virginal, lute, cittern, guitar, viola da gamba, recorder, and trumpet. An interview with Louis Peter Grijp reflects on art music in the Dutch Golden Age, ending with a series of audio files.

Left: A lady seated at a virginal
Right: The art of painting, detail.

Folk music
The scenes shown in Vermeer’s paintings only depict the realm of the Delft elite; indeed, he studiously eschewed the well-trodden path of “low life” paintings exemplified by Jan Steen:

Vermeer knew the songs and dances which were accompanied by music of the fiddle, bagpipe, hurdy-gurdy, or shawm, and the other popular instruments. We know that he was raised in his father’s inn Mechelen right in the centre of Delft on the Market Square where most of the festivities took place. Music must have been all around. The rustic low-life scenes staged in inns and taverns, peasants’ traditional festivities or private “merry” gatherings of the great Dutch/Flemish genre masters, like Adriaen van Ostade, Adriaen Brouwer, David Tenier, were familiar to all.

But Vermeer took a different route, one more artistically noble [sic] and potentially lucrative, one that brought him into contact with the refined and sophisticated daily life activities of the upper class.

So Rech does well to recreate the wider musical soundscape that surrounded Vermeer, which would have included a variety of folk musicking: these essays relate to his life, not his art.

egg dance

Jan Steen, The egg dance, c1674.

First he gives a useful introduction on music and dance in Vermeer’s time, with ample reference to Susato. He then provides substantial essays on folk instruments: bagpipe (2), crumhorn (2), dulcian (3), fiddle, hommel zither, hurdy-gurdy, midwinterhoorn, rommelpot, and shawm (2)—ranging widely over time and place, with notes on construction and playing techniques. Admirable as all this is, since readers are likely to consult the site to learn about the Low Countries in the 17th century, they may find themselves impatient to reach such material.

Jan Steen, The village wedding (1653), detail; and a Delft tile with bagpiper motif.

Rech also offers a fine study of the carillon, in five parts, starting with a cross-cultural history of bells and culminating with the Nieuwe Kirk in Delft.

It seems suitable that Holland was one of the main centres for the early music revival (e.g. Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman).

See also What is serious music?!. For an impertinent spoof on Vermeer and others, see Great works missing the crucial element.

The Bach cello suites

I’ve already praised Stephen Isserlis’s wonderful performances of Bach cello suites, and now, as if by magic, he’s written a definitive guide:

  • Stephen Isserlis, The Bach cello suites: a companion (2021).

Here’s a trailer for his complete recordings of the suites (2007):

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and indeed, Steven writes about them too—but his comments are glorious, leading one irresistibly to the music, and performance. The book is intended “for music-lovers of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the casual listener to the performing musician”; by contrast with the ponderous style of academics whose worthy, voluminous research he digests so well, his chatty style feels personal and communicative rather than twee, always informed by his insights as a performer. Do also consult his website, where he writes engagingly (e.g. his fine post on Harpo).

After a brief biography of Bach, in Part 2 (“The genesis of the suites”) Steven ponders some basic questions. In “Why did Bach write the suites?” he surveys earlier works—Italian pieces for unaccompanied cello, and a German repertoire for unaccompanied violin; and he often contrasts Bach’s own violin sonatas and partitas from around the same period. He explores for whom the cello suites might have been written, and for what instrument, introducing the various types of cello then played, as well as the bow—so important in animating the music. We can’t even date the suites precisely, though they were composed during Bach’s years at Köthen, before he settled in Leipzig.

His discussion of the four early sources, and their relationships, renders arcane scholarship accessible and relevant to performance—seemingly minor differences in the notes, in slurring, and so on—illustrating the latter with the Prelude of the first suite. While making a convincing case for informed readings of the research to illuminate performance, he is amused by scholarly spats:

I am a member of various societies devoted to composers—partly because I’m interested in those composers, and partly because I find it so funny to read such things as, for instance, Professor Y’s triumphant assertion that Professor Z is quite wrong to say that Liszt arrived in Bologna on 30 October, because here is a restaurant bill from a Bologna restaurant dated 28 October. The next newsletter is then likely to contain a furious letter from Professor Z, pointing out that the 28 October bill—as all the world (except Professor Y, evidently) knows—actually dates from the previous year, when Liszt was between Modena and Imola and stopped off for lunch in Bologna between 1pm and 3pm; with all due respect (i.e. very little), Professor Z suggests that Professor Y should have done her homework, and perhaps had her eyesight checked, before making such preposterous allegations.

Steven’s account of reception history is also fascinating. While Bach’s music was not completely forgotten after his death, the cello suites were. Several editions were published in the 1820s, but they still remained accessible only to a select few. At Schumann’s behest, they were performed complete in Düsseldorf over New Year 1853–54, but any other sporadic performances were mostly of single movements, sometimes with piano accompaniment (Shock Horror). In 1879 the suites were eventually published in the Bach Gesellschaft edition. But still, their modern rediscovery came only with Pablo Casals (1876–1973), who at the age of 13 came across a (dodgy) edition in a music shop near the harbour in Barcelona, and later went on to popularise the suites throughout the world. His complete recordings from 1936 to 1939 were made at a particularly traumatic time for both Spain and the world:

In Part 3 Steven stresses the nature of the works as collections of dance movements. After outlining the history of the suite, he explains the style of the individual genres, beginning with the Prelude, then a term for improvisation, “the highest peak of performance” (Mattheson). He gives a fine exposition of the varied tempi of the “challenging” Allemandes, which were already rather distant from social dancing. Following the Courante, “like majestically beating hearts at the centre of each suite, the Sarabandes are oases of poignant calm”, far from the risqué nature of the dance’s Central American origins. After Menuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte comes the final, exuberant Gigue.

In Part 4 Steven adroitly answers fourteen FAQs, including wise comments on style and thoughts on the baroque cello, strings, and bow. On playing from memory:

I do find a music stand somehow impedes contact with an audience in these pieces. […] I did play the fourth suite once with a page-turner; but he turned consistently one movement ahead of the one I was actually playing—so I had to play it from memory after all. I found, in fact, that I could do it—so I thanked him; he’d done me a favour.

He then suggests fourteen rules for the player, beginning with Rule 1: “There are NO rules for playing this music”. Other advice includes “Don’t demonstrate your ideas”, “Dance!”, and he offers wise words on the sparing, expressive use of vibrato, as well as stressing the (often invisible) bassline, and the harmonic structure. Finally he reminds us to enjoy playing the music, with all its joy and humour.

cross

Part 5 makes an impressive case for an underlying sacred programme behind the suites—making them effectively a suite of suites depicting the life of Christ. Here, and throughout, Steven makes insightful comparisons with other Bach works, in particular the church cantatas. Citing Ruth Tatlow, he ponders Bach’s interest in the symbolism of numbers. He then offers rather detailed programmes:

  • 1 Nativity (with a fine analysis of the Prelude)
  • 2 The Agony in the Garden
  • 3 The Holy Trinity—or the Ascension
  • 4 Magnificat—or the Presentation in the Temple
  • 5 Crucifixion
  • 6 Resurrection.

suite 2

chordsFor the second suite he thoughtfully discusses the puzzling chords at the end of the Prelude; while admitting the possibility of decorating them in the style of the rest of the movement, he also makes an analogy with the Five Holy Wounds.

By contrast with the C major “blaze of glory” of the third suite, the C minor tonality of the fifth suite, “perfect backdrop for the unfolding of tragedy”, is echoed in other “sombre masterpieces” (the final movements of Bach’s own Passions, Mozart, Brahms, Rachmaninoff: see here). At its heart is the Sarabande, “the epitome of loneliness, desolation, despair”.

For the sixth suite,

Having darkened the sound of the cello with the tuned-down A string in the fifth suite, Bach now reaches out to the sky with a fifth string, an E string a fifth above the A—rather like those medieval master builders who developed Gothic windows, with pointed arches reaching towards heaven, letting in more light.

He likens the opening to the pealing of bells—a more authentic simile than the equally evocative image of the Sicilian marranzanu jew’s harp (a post that also includes a complete live performance of the six suites by Yoyo Ma at the Proms).

Steven continues to sing the praises of this Prelude in Part 6, where he takes the suites movement by movement, pondering nuances. For the Courante of the first suite (“a bundle of fun”) he recalls his teacher-guru Jane Cowan describing it as “a portrait of a street entertainer performing an energetic dance to the accompaniment of his pet monkey banging on a drum”; she characterised the Gigue as “drunk”. He includes notes on bowings that (as ever) are not just technical but musical too—such as the Prelude of the third suite, where he explores a conundrum in the variant sources (“Anna Magdalena has been at the wine again”). For his comments on the Sarabande of the fifth suite, click here.

Bach and alap

As to the wonderful Allemande of the sixth suite (another alap, I’d say),

If one is thinking in terms of the recitatives that the short note-values bring to mind, there must be a certain freedom within the beat; but it is at least equally important to remember that, even though the style may be vocal in nature, it is still an allemande. […] One has to breathe in expansive, unhurried spans, perhaps imagining a moving bassline controlling the flow of the melodic current.

“The greatest cycle ever to be written for a solo cello” is completed with a Gigue of “bounding, irresistible, unquenchable joy”, with “pedal-note passages, more folk instruments, more bells, impossibly huge leaps…”

And as Steven writes, having completed this glorious cycle, Bach probably just

put down his pen and went out to rehearse, or to repair his harpsichord quill plectrums; or perhaps he settled down to a convivial dinner involving singing with his family and friends, his next masterpieces already buzzing around in his head.

The book makes a fine companion, inviting a wide audience to immerse themselves in these miraculous suites.

* * *

See also A Bach retrospective. Other fine performers who write eloquently about Bach include John Eliot Gardiner (e.g. here and here) and John Butt. Meanwhile in India, the art of dhrupad is less varied but no less profound; and the maqam/muqam/mugham suites performed throughout the Middle East and Central Asia are vast edifices. See also Unpacking “improvisation”.

Bowed zithers, 2: Alpine

As defined in ethnomusicology, zithers are diverse. In my recent post I outlined the various zither types under the Sachs-Hornbostel system: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Worldwide, plucked zithers are common (note the “Zither” entry in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments), but bowed zithers seem quite rare. Half-tube board zithers, both plucked and bowed, are distinctive to East Asia.

Box zithers include hammered dulcimers like the santur and qanun. In medieval Europe the psaltery was plucked; players only took a bow to it in the 20th century.

langspil

Anna Þórhallsdóttir playing the langspil.  From wiki.

The Inuit tautirut is a zither whose bow is a strip of whalebone resined with spruce gum; the Icelandic fiðla and langspil have enjoyed a revival (see here).

* * *

Turning to a less exotic area of “world music”—and perhaps posing us a certain challenge in “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse“—the “Alpine” box zither became common around south Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the 19th century.

Its precursor was the scheitholt, dating back to the 14th century—which might lead us down the path of early north European zithers like the hummel and épinette de Vosges, as well as the Appalachian dulcimer (see this article on the excellent Essential Vermeer site, which I introduce here); and moving further east, the cimbalom family (including the tsymbaly of Hutsuls in Ukraine), as well as a wealth of Baltic psalteries!

Grove Zither Alpine

From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.

The Alpine zither is sometimes bowed as well as plucked. Here’s an example:

I’m drawn to the Alpine bowed zither by a personal connection. Rudi Rieber (1934–2004), father of My Brilliant Friend Augusta, taught himself to play the Konzertzither in his youth. He was brought up in Winterlingen in the Swabian Alps south of Tübingen. There, as his daughter explains:

My watchmaker grandfather Wilhelm had a clock-and-silverware shop. One day around 1940 a gypsy woman purchased something there, for which in return she offered to barter her zither. My father Rudi, then 5 or 6 years old, watched her demonstrating how it was to be played, both plucked and with the bow. Later he also taught himself to play the violin, guitar, and mouth-organ.

Left, Rudi Rieber, 1994;
right, Rudi’s grandson Selim, 2000, at the age of 7,
shortly before he followed the path of jazz/rock/pop drumming

In 1994 Rudi recorded a series of songs for his 60th birthday, inviting his former classmates. His spoken introduction reflects a sense of responsibility towards a tradition under threat. Recalling his childhood after the NSDAP took control of the municipality in 1933, he commented:

We were fortunate to still be taught many of these beautiful songs, and we can be happy that this treasure has been given to us. We are grateful to our teacher H.C. Seeger, who understood how to enrich our entire life—in times when folk-song was under the threat of being misused and replaced. With this recording I am attempting to weave a thread of our tradition from half a century ago down to today.

All this was in tune with the Wandervogel youth movement from 1896. In protest against industrialisation, its ascetic devotees immersed themselves in the countryside, communing with nature; and Volkslied was at the heart of the movement. The Wandervogel groups were outlawed by the Nazis in 1933; so while it’s not immediately audible, we might almost regard the maintenance of this repertoire as a kind of underground preservation.

Augusta’s intrepid explorations of her father’s repertoire reveal how early and regional folk traditions became interlaced with the world of Mozart and Mahler.

The early-19th-century collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn had a pervasive influence on German identity, and on both folk and art cultures. Songs that Rudi played from this repertoire include Jetzt gang I ans Brünnele, a Swabian folk-song documented by the composer Friedrich Silcher (1789–1860):

and Im schönsten Wiesengrunde will ich begraben sein:

as well as Bald gras ich am Neckar, whose text Mahler set in the Rheinlegendchen song of his own Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Es, es, es, und es, es ist ein harter Schluss is a satirical apprentice’s song from the Wanderjahre repertoire (cf. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen settings). The wiki entry on Es, es, es… details its reception history since the 19th century—this was one song that the Nazis did readily adopt,apparently apolitical, describing the grievances of the previous century”, its catchy melody suitable for marching.

Among other pieces that Rudi recorded, Wenn alle Brünnlein fließen is a 16th-century antecedent—again apparently Swabian—of Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen from Die Zauberflöte; Mozart also set Komm lieber Mai und mache.

With the rich overtones, and the use of the bow, the material takes on a shimmering, ethereal patina. Here, after a plucked prelude, like an Alpine alap, Rudi adds the bow for a Schuhplattler dance:

This is the kind of domestic musicking quaintly evoked here:

* * *

Intriguingly, the piano is classified as a zither (Not a Lot of People Know That…)! Further to John Cage’s innovative use of the instrument, Stephen Scott (1944–2021) was a pioneer of the bowed piano. Here’s his Entrada:

Ha! There’s one angle that the ever-inventive Augusta, a fine pianist trained in Paris, still has to explore…

I’ve focused here on bowed zithers—but all right then, I guess we have to play out with the theme from The third man (1949), iconic soundtrack to an iconic film, plucked by Anton Karas:

The opening melody makes another worthy addition to my list of Unpromising chromaticisms (“write a staggeringly popular tune using only the five semitones within the range of a major third, with two chords”):

Third Man

See also Zithers of Iran and Turkey.

Posted from Kuzguncuk, Istanbul—
with many thanks to Augusta!

The gig

James Reese Europe. Source: wiki.

Long before the “gig economy”, the term gig was widely used in circles such as jazz and WAM. I’m fond of the story about the late lamented Linda Smith chatting with her mum.

The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians gives a succinct, dry definition:

a term commonly applied to a musical engagement of one night’s duration only; to undertake such an engagement.

Wiki elaborates:

Gig is slang for a live musical performance, recording session, or other (usually paid) engagement of a musician or ensemble. Originally coined in the 1920s by jazz musicians, the term, short for the word “engagement” [?], now refers to any aspect of performing such as assisting with performance and attending musical performance. More broadly, the term “gigging” means having paid work, being employed.

More detailed is this discussion on stackexchange, referring to the Word detective site.

I associate the term particularly with freelancers. A Messiah in Scunthorpe for a jolly good tea is a gig of sorts, but so is a Matthew Passion at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. I wonder when WAM musos, ever keen to deflect pomposity (cf. Viola jokes and maestro-baiting), began using the term.

But (apud Word detective)

Every job is a “gig” today.  Calling your job a “gig” is a way of saying “I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends”.  And it’s not just laconic “baristas” at Starbucks.  I’ve heard corporate lawyers describe their positions as “gigs”.

Commonly cited is a 1926 Melody maker article, whose byline reads, “One Popular Gig Band Makes Use of a Nicely Printed Booklet”. But The jazz lexicon goes further:

According to jazzman Eubie Blake, bandleader James Reese Europe used the term in its jazz sense as early as c1905; widely current since c1920.

While the use of the term in the jazz world since the early 20th century is widely attested, there are many interesting suggestions about its earlier usage, which remain controversial. The Oxford English dictionary suggests (*Sexism watch!*):

The meaning of the term “gig” is transferred from the deprecatory term for a “flighty girl” and subsequently indicates anything which whirls, or is dangerous or unpredictable.

Word detective has more, alas without giving a source:

The first incarnation of “gig,” around 1225 [?!], was to mean “a flighty, giddy girl,” although this sense may well have been based on an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “something that spins or whirls” (as later found in “whirligig”).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gig” may be onomatopoeic or “imitative” in origin, meaning that the word itself was meant to suggest something small that whirls.  This sense of “gig” later came to also mean “an odd person, a fool” as well as “a joke” or “a state of boisterous merriment and fun” (“in high gig”).

This sense leads to an etymology from “giggle”, having some fun.

Source: wiki.

By the late 18th century, gig commonly referred to a light, one-horse carriage, popular in New Orleans; by extension,

The thought is that black musicians, in order to avoid being arrested for playing on the street, would instead play jazz on the back of carriages or trucks.

I’m most attracted to two possible musical derivations from gigue (jig), or geiger fiddle. GIG has also been claimed as an acronym: God Is Good, or Get It Going.

Stackexchange thickens the plot bewilderingly by citing the Dictionary of American slang (1960):

gig n1 A child’s pacifier or any object, as a cloth square, spoon, or the like, used as a toy; any object to which a small child is attached and with which he likes to play; any object treated by a child as a fetish; a gigi or ju-ju. Orig. Negro slave and Southern use. From “gigi,” the word is very well known to about 35% of the population, unheard of by the rest. 2 [sometimes taboo] The rectum. From “gigi.” Used euphem. by some children, as part of their bathroom vocabulary, but not common to all children. Used by some male adults [taboo] as a euphem. for “ass” in such expressions as “up your gig.” 3 [taboo] The vagina. From “gigi.” Not common. Prob. Southern use. 4 A party, a good time; esp. an uninhibited party; occasionally but not often, an amorous session, necking party, or even a sexual orgy between a man and a woman. c1915 [1954]: “Cornet players used to pawn their instruments when there was a lull in funerals, parades, dances, gigs and picnics.” L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 100. 1958: “Life is a Many Splendored Gig,” a song title. 5 A jam session ; a jazz party or gathering of jazz musicians or enthusiasts. Orig. swing use. 1920 [1954]: “Kid Ory had some of the finest gigs, especially for the rich white folk.” L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 141. 6 Specif., an engagement or job for a jazz musician or musicians, esp. for a one-night engagement. 1950: “If I ask you to go out on a gig, it’s thirty-five or forty dollars for that night.” A. Lomax, Mr. Jelly Roll, 204. 1954: “On a gig, or one night stand.” L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 221. 7 Something, as a jazz arrangement, that is satisfying or seems perfect. Orig. swing use. 8 A fishing spear; a pronged fork as used for catching fish, frogs, and the like. 1946: [citation omitted]. 9 An unfavorable report; a demerit; a reprimand. Army and some student use since c1940. The relations, if, any, between a child’s pacifier or fetish, the rectum and vagina, a party, a sex orgy, jazz music, a pronged fork, and a reprimand are most interesting, and lie in the field of psychology rather than of etymology.

Zemlinsky

Zemlinsky 1917

Zemlinsky (left) with Schoenberg in Prague, 1917.

After university, during my few years as a regular extra with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the standard romantic classics took a back seat to the avant-garde repertoire. The orchestra’s focus on contemporary music was a feature of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music, particularly from 1971 with Pierre Boulez as principal conductor.

While I was well up for new repertoire, not all of it was inspiring. Concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and the Proms offset the orchestra’s studio recordings at Maida Vale, but many players felt that in taking a steady 9-to-5 job they had sacrificed their hard-earned skills at the altar of modernity. The canteen breakfast was often the high point of the day. As principal horn player Alan Civil recalled,

We did about 80% modern and 20% classical. The awful tragedy, for the orchestra, was that eventually we were not able to play the standard classics. We could sight-read the most fearsome contemporary piece, but a Brahms symphony—embarrassing!

So apart from the occasional Mahler, my most memorable experiences with the band were playing lesser-known early 20th-century works like the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Bax’s Tintagel—and the Lyric symphony by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) (see here, and wiki).

A protégé of Brahms—their clarinet trios were paired at this year’s Proms—Zemlinsky went on to thrive in Vienna, working with Schoenberg, his brother-in-law. He was among Alma Schindler’s suitors before she married Mahler in 1902. In 1905 (the year after the premiere of Ravel‘s Shéhérazade, FWIW), Zemlinsky composed his symphonic poem-fantasy Die Seejungfrau:

Written partly to exorcise his failed relationship with Alma, Die Seejungfrau was premiered at the same concert as Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The latter is another fine piece that I relished in Boulez’s interpretation with the BBC—here he conducts it with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 2003.

It’s always sobering and entertaining to consult Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective—here’s a review of the first performance:

Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande is not just filled with wrong notes, in the sense of Strauss’s Don Quixote; it is a fifty-minute long protracted wrong note. This is to be taken literally. What else may hide behind these cacophonies is quite impossible to find out.

Zemlinsky concert 1905

Programme for 1905 concert. Source.

After holding conducting posts in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin, Zemlinsky fled Nazism in 1938, making his home in New York, where his work attracted little attention.

The Lyric symphony (which inspired the Lyric suite of Alban Berg) dates from 1923, with Rabindranath Tagore’s poems sung by soprano and baritone:

Since the 1980s Zemlinsky’s reputation has grown—as, in a different way, has that of Korngold. See also Jonny spielt auf.

Jonny spielt auf

Jonny promo

Getty Images: Ullstein Bild.

In my post on Erich Korngold, I mentioned Richard Taruskin’s 1994 essay “The golden age of kitsch”, where he reviews CDs of Korngold’s Das wunder der Heliane and Ernst Krenek’s 1937 “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf [Jonny goes to town, or Jonny strikes up]. So here I’ll introduce the latter.

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, Chapter 6 “City of nets: Berlin in the 20s”) provides background.

For a little while in the late 20s, Krenek acquired certifiable, almost Gershwin-like celebrity. […] Like so many young Austrians and Germans, he yearned to break out of the hothouse of Romantic and Expressionist art, to join the milling throngs in the new democratic street.

Taruskin’s typically polemical essay is worth citing at some length.

The Nazi concept of artistic degeneracy was incoherent and opportunistic, and so is Decca/London’s marketing strategy. It took very little to run afoul of the Nazis then, and it costs very little to deplore them now. Their opposition, especially when it was passively incurred, conferred no distinction, unless their approval is thought to confer distinction on the likes of Beethoven or Wagner. There are no lessons to be learned from studying the Nazi index of banned musical works, which, like the Nazi canon, contained masterpieces, ephemerae, kitsch, and trash, covering a wide stylistic and ideological range. […]

So just this once let’s forget the Nazis. They had nothing to do with Krenek’s opera or Korngold’s opera. They didn’t even ban them. They didn’t have to ban them, for both works had fallen out of the repertory by 1933. […]

What makes these first [CD] releases fascinating is not what they have to say about the Nazis but what they have to say about the artistic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which had a thriving operatic economy—the last truly thriving, that is, consumption-driven, economy in the history of opera. Composers wrote for a market. Their work was in demand. They strove not for eventual immortality but for immediate success. Producers could recoup their investment in new works and sometimes exceed it, so they sought out new works. Premieres were more noteworthy than revivals, and commanded the interest of the press.

Was this a degenerative ecology? Did it lead to exploitative “populist” formulas, or to weak imitation? No, it was synergistic; it led to experimentation and to emulation, with the aim of surpassing previous standards of novelty and distinction.

He goes on to note the great success of operas like Berg’s Wozzeck (for Lulu, see here). But even more popular was Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. Still, Taruskin describes what strikes me as a common trait of WAM until the late 19th century:

Sudden eclipse was part of the bargain. An opera had its place in the sun if it managed to earn one, and then it moved out of the way.

He attributes the waning of this nurturing operatic ecology to the talkies:

The movies did not only preempt the operatic audience. At a profound level, the movies became the operas of the mid- to late 20th century, leaving the actual opera houses with a closed-off museum repertoire and a specialised audience of aficionados, rather than a a general entertainment public hungry for sensation. With the advent of the sound film, opera found its preeminence as a union of the arts compromised and its standing as the grandest of all spectacles usurped. […]

Cinematic transport to distant times and climes was instantaneous. Evocative atmosphere, exotic or realistic, could be more potently conjured up on film than on the best-equipped operatic stage, and the narrative techniques of the movies were unprecedentedly flexible and compelling. […]

But wait, isn’t there another difference, a bigger one? Opera, however, popular, remains an art, while movies, or at least Hollywood movies, are a mass-produced and mass-reproduced medium and amount only to kitsch. Or so we are told. I am not so sure.

The operatic world from which Korngold and Krenek emerged, like the wider world of art in the period following the Great War, was a bitterly divided world. The division was not simply between stylistic radicalism and conservatism, or between a liberating iconoclasm and a hidebound tradition, though that is how a stubbornly Whiggish historiography continues to represent it. Nor was it primarily a division between a senile romanticism and a new classicism, as so many artists of the time liked to say. It was, rather, a difference in the way that art was viewed in relation to the world.

Citing the early Soviet critic Boris Asafyev:

An authentic modern music would have to be “nearer to the street than to the salon, nearer to the life of public actuality than to that of philosophical seclusion”,

Taruskin goes on to contrast the operas of Korngold and Krenek:

Though they are being marketed now under a crude common rubric, they embodied antithetical values.

Jonny poster

Unlike Korngold, “the master of musical sacroporn” (an epithet that Taruskin also applies to Turangalîla!), Krenek embodied the new genre of Zeitoper, “now-opera”:

“Now-opera” was not simply a matter of contemporary action, of references to current events and American pop-genres (shimmies, tangos, blues, Negro-spiritualen) and pop-timbres (sax, banjo), though these were the grounds for Jonny’s immediate audience appeal and its subsequent (misleading) reputation as a “jazz opera”. Its main novelty was irony: the clash between the ephemeral content and the “classical” form. And this implied another, more fundamental clash: in place of the music of timeless inner feeling, its unabating fluidity of tempo dissolving chronometric reality, there was now to be a music that proceeded just as unabatingly through through busy ostinatos at what Krenek at one point labelled “schnelles Grammophon-tempo”, emphasising uniformity of physical and physiological motion and banshing psychology. It was a music of corporeal elation and spiritual nihilism, a tonic for the tired and the disillusioned, for people who felt betrayed by the lie of transcendence. It was, in short, the music not of America but of “Americanism”. And so the now-opera was not really sachlich after all but still märchenhaft, embodying not a new reality but a new fairy tale, a new allegory and, yes, a new kitsch.

In Jonny spielt auf, the first now-opera, the allegory is overt and sledge-hammer-subtle. The protagonist is not the title character—a negro band-leader vaguely modeled, it seems, on Sam Wooding, whose Chocolate Kiddies Revue swept Germany in 1925–26—but Max, a Central European composer of traditional transcendental bent.

As the glacier-like Max pursues banjo-playing operatic diva Anita (an evocation of Anna Mahler, to whom Krenek was briefly married), Jonny attempts to steal the enchanted Amati violin of Daniello, a slick, matinee-idol classical virtuoso.

A tiny leitmotif, just a descent through the interval of a fourth to a downbeat, pervades everything. (Anyone who has heard Ravel’s “jazz”-tinged L’enfant et les sortilèges of 1925 will recall this very distinctive idea as the “Maman!” motif. Did Krenek?).

Finally Max, his glacier persona melting, sets off with Anita for America, whither Krenek followed in 1938.

Here’s a playlist of excerpts:

Actually, the opera is far from the accessible populism of The threepenny opera (1928), and jazz plays a very minor role—not least because when Krenek “conceived his libretto, he had never met a Negro or an American”. What he set out to provide was “a hope-inspiring Pied Piper, or a latter-day Papageno, as alluringly Other as possible”.

The everyday, the ephemeral, and the phenomenal […] could function convincingly within the world of opera only as an exotic import. By its very presence, it was exceptional, numinous, and threatening. So now-opera was stil, opera. It could only be a special case, a subgenre; and it could not escape the fate of the genre as a whole.

Taruskin finds the opera dubious politically too:

The freedom celebrated at the end of Jonny spielt auf is only the freedom to seek new masters, to submit to a new hypnosis.

He notes the tendency to forgive both the operas of both Korngold and Krenek their cynicism.

The indulgence, it seems pretty clear, is purchased courtesy of the Nazis. Take away their seal of disapproval, and we are left not with easily dismissed “degeneracy” but with decadence, which is more real, more disquieting, and much harder to get a grip on.

This was the downside of the thriving consumer culture that, in our day, with opera a walking corpse, seems at first so enviable. But this was a culture of frisson and titillation posing as a culture of liberation and uplift.

Going rather far in imputing a moral purpose for “serious music” (“The danger of Taruskin”?!), he suggests:

However it may tickle our sense of irony to contemplate it, and even if we choose to excuse its practitioners on grounds of naïveté or sincere bad taste, it entailed a lack of moral purpose that rendered the “serious” arts defenceless against totalitarian rhetoric, and passively complicit in its triumph.

Given Krenek’s hazy acquaintance with the world he was evoking, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Real Thing (more leads under Clarke Peters’ radio series on black music in Europe): here’s the Sam Wooding band with Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin (leading us nicely to Shanghai jazz):

and the Chocolate Kiddies in 1933:

Note also the post about Jonny spielt auf on the stimulating site Black Central Europe.


* Ross also cites Slonimsky’s fine summary of Max Brand’s Machinist Hopkins (1929) (evoking Stella Gibbons’ spoof synopsis of a Britten opera):

A cuckolding libertine pushes the husband of his mistress to his death in the cogs of a monstrous machine and strangles her when he finds out she has become a promiscuous prostitute, whereupon the foreman, Machinist Hopkins, dismisses him from his job, ostensibly for inefficiency.

A cappella singing

WD 2011

In China, the “orthodox” vocal liturgy of both Buddhist and Daoist temples has been thought to be properly accompanied only by ritual percussion (see e.g. here, and here)—just as in Islam and Christianity.

Although many temple and household ritual groups further incorporate melodic instrumental ensemble, the core practice among household ritual specialists is vocal liturgy with percussion.

For the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi, see my film, and e.g. The Invitation ritual, Pacing the Void 2, and audio tracks ##1–3 on the playlist (in the sidebar, with commentary here). Other instances of vocal liturgy with percussion include the Daoists of Changwu (Shaanxi), the performance of “precious scrolls” in Hebei (playlist #7), as well as ritual groups in Jiangsu and all around south China. So in order to understand religious practice in China, we must take into account how ritual texts are performed—through singing.

chant

Further west, note Byzantine and Gregorian chant cultures, and examples from Eritrea and Athos, as well as Ukraine. Around the world, a cappella singing (both liturgical and secular) is perhaps the dominant means of expression; see e.g. Sardinia, and Albania.

Byrd score

Some of these styles even dispense with percussion, and a cappella singing is a notable feature of religious-inspired WAM —some instances:

Some of these were composed for church services (and I haven’t even begun to broach the riches of Bach motets…); but as we move through the 19th century, pieces also began to be written for the quasi-secular setting of the concert stage.

Bach Passions at the Proms

Nicolaikirche

To complement Bach’s Matthew Passion from this year’s Proms—always a moving event (now on i-Player)—here’s a reminder of some relevant posts:

ritual-masters

Bach meets Li Manshan, Leipzig 2013.

All this, and much more, under A Bach retrospective.

For other Proms this season, see 1707, New British jazz, and Korngold. See also Proms tag.

Korngold at the Proms

 

Korngold and Walter 1928

A rejected casting for the mirror scene in Duck soup. Allegedly.

Among the highlights of this year’s Proms was John Wilson‘s stimulating programme with the reborn Sinfonia of London (shown on BBC4, on i-Player).

After Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture (a favourite of the incomparable Carlos Kleiber), Francesca Chiejina sang the exquisite Seven early songs (1905–08) of Alban Berg. As a polar opposite of the overture, Wilson continued with Ravel’s disturbing La valse (1920), depicting “a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future”, in the words of Alex Ross.

* * * 

The second half of the Prom featured the Symphony in F sharp (1952) * of Erich Korngold (1897–1957) (note the excellent Michael Haas, on his “Forbidden music” site ; see also websites, here and here; and wiki).

Korngold cartoon

As a prodigy in Vienna, Korngold was praised by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Puccini. Making his name with the opera Die tote Stadt, he was a prominent figure in the lively theatrical scene of the 1920s, going on to collaborate with Max Reinhardt. Having commuted between Vienna and Hollywood since 1934, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938 Korngold realised that it would be impossible for him and his family to continue living in Austria. In the USA his film scores soon came to define the Hollywood sound. As Michael Haas comments,

he found himself mugged by both realities—commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time.

Korngold films

It’s unfortunate that Korngold himself subscribed to the notion that “serious music” could only reside in the symphonic tradition—to which he returned after retiring disillusioned from film in 1947, but still writing in a romantic style that had plummeted from fashion after the war. Even Messiaen‘s Turangalîla (1949), challenging yet sensual, was met with negative reviews; Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître was premiered in 1955. 

So pieces such as Korngold’s Violin concerto (1947) were received patronisingly. Whatever the zeitgeist was, this wasn’t it; much as we all love late romanticism, surely this was too late?! (cf. the ever-later early music).

But Korngold’s reputation has grown in recent years. As Alex Ross comments,

“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value.

Ross gives thoughtful background in Chapter 8 (“Music for all”) of The rest is noise, under “Hollywood music” and “Exile music”. Richard Taruskin is always worth reading too: in The danger of music (§33, “The golden age of kitsch”) he thickens the plot by contrasting Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane with Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf, both from 1927.

Perhaps the weird twin burdens among WAM aficionados of expecting both background knowledge and linear progress can be eased by imagining Korngold’s late works as composed before the war, as if he were a Rachmaninoff or a Zemlinsky. At least, it would be sad not to allow oneself to relish the symphony’s gorgeous slow movement (and in Haas’s post, do listen to Korngold playing the Adagio on the piano—as with Mahler’s piano rolls, one gets a sense of composition, improvisation).

Indeed, since Mahler was already fêted in New York by 1908 (see e.g. here and here), while it may be fruitless to speculate how his style might have evolved had he lived to the era of the 1930s’ talkies (one can hardly imagine that any more could be said after the 9th and 10th symphonies and Der Abschied), it’s intriguing to wonder whether he too would have been seduced by the lure of Hollywood…

As Haas observes, conflicts over modernity and populism were already hotly debated in 1920s’ Berlin and Vienna (cf. What is serious music?!);

The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema, or is it l’art pour l’art—a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely “disposable”? 

So all this makes Korngold’s work grist to John Wilson’s mill. Here’s his 2019 recording of the symphony with the Sinfonia of London:

For audience tastes since the 1970s (again based on Taruskin), see also The right kind of spirituality?.


*  Though it’s often described as “Symphony in F sharp major”, Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll notes that he was particular in casting the work in F sharp, without specifying either major or minor (cf. the story of the prison exam!). Nor should it be confused with F hashtag minor. Anyway, six sharps would be well above the legal limit on Sundays in Pennsylvania. 

Arnold and Alma Rosé

A and A Rosé

Source here.

Among the distinguished Jewish musicians in fin-de-siècle Vienna was the Rosé family (see e.g. here).

Arnold Rosé (1863–1946) (here, and wiki), led the Vienna Phil from 1881 to 1931. Having worked closely with Brahms (!), he married Mahler’s younger sister Justine. Meanwhile he led the Rosé quartet from 1882 to 1938—to supplement my post on Late Beethoven quartets, here are the opening movements of their 1927 recording of the C♯ minor quartet:

Alma Rosé (1906–44; see e.g. here, here, and wiki), the niece of Mahler, named for his wife, was also a violinist. Here are father and daughter with the slow movement of the Bach double violin concerto in 1929:

In 1932 Alma formed the salon orchestra Wiener Walzermädeln.

Arnold gave his last concert with the Vienna Phil on 16 January 1938, playing Mahler 9 under Bruno Walter. But after the Anschluss, further devastated by the death of his wife Justine, he retreated to London with their daughter Alma.

But soon after reaching safety there, Alma made the fateful decision to try and resume her career in Holland. Fleeing to France upon the Nazi invasion, she was captured in 1942; after a period interned in Drancy, she was deported to Auschwitz, where she led the Mädchenorchester (see here, here, and wiki), before losing her life in 1944, aged 36.

FF and ALW

Source here.

Camp inmates like the musicians serving the whims of their Nazi tormentors (among many sites, see e.g. here and here) constantly had to negotiate impossible moral decisions in the faint hope of survival. Among the survivors was Fania Fénelon (here, and wiki), whose autobiography gives an unflattering portrayal of Alma, and downplays the bond between the musicians; as explained by Michael Haas, her account was disputed by other survivors such as the wonderful Anita Lasker-Wallfisch.

Still, Fénelon’s book formed the basis for the 1980 TV film Playing for time—with Vanessa Redgrave, also controversially:

And there’s a recent Polish dramatisation of Alma’s story by Bente Kahan.

Arnold Rosé survived the war. In 1946 the Vienna Phil sought to reinstate him as leader, but he refused on the grounds that over fifty Nazis still remained in the orchestra (see e.g. here, and wiki). Heartbroken at the loss of his wife and daughter, he died that same year.

Rosé grave

Source here.

See also my posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and Noor Inayat Khan; as well as on Gustav and Alma Mahler’s daughter Anna.

1707 at the Proms

JEG Prom 1

To complement John Eliot Gardiner’s Prom last week (shown on BBC4: on i-Player)
with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists:

Both Bach and Handel were born in 1685, and this Prom featured two of their early works, composed when they were 22 years old—both for Easter, indeed. 1707 was a fine vintage.

Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden has long been among Gardiner’s signature pieces—it features in this post, where he also comments on his training with Nadia Boulanger.

JEG Prom 2

Handel’s Dixit dominus has also been a regular showcase for Gardiner’s choir and orchestra over the decades. Amidst all the virtuosity, the heart of the piece is De torrente, the ravishing duet for two sopranos—repeated as an encore in the Prom, as in this performance from 2014:

For more on Gardiner’s early experiments with baroque style, see here, under “The world of early music”; his performances appear often in the posts under A Bach retrospective. For Handel arias, click here; for Rameau, born two years before of the “class of ’85”, here.

Interview stories

World map

I note that there are several related stories on ‘ere about interviews.

This one features a young hopeful applying for a position in the Music Department at Cardiff:

Shifting the scene to a prison, this story may or may not be true:

Branching into “world music”, this one certainly is:

as is this fine story about Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interview for the LA Phil, exposing a mindset that is still common in both WAM and Daoist ritual studies:

Salonen

This is a fantasy interview with Sam Cooke:

“The undisputed master of” * the interview is of course Philomena Cunk, as in her programmes on

Cunk

Seriously though folks, I discussed issues in fieldwork interviewing/chatting here, following Bruce Jackson.


* In homage to I’m sorry I haven’t a clue; with “master” serving as a gender-neutral term until someone comes up with a good substitute…