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

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…

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).

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.

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), 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.

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!

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. 

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.

Anagram tales: a roundup, with wacky index

Here are links to our initial selection from the magnificent anagram tales by Nicolas Robertson. They group neatly in three trilogies—first, Mozart operas:

followed by

and

The visions emerging here make up a kind of Esperanto fiction—it’s most rewarding to follow the gnomic texts with the aid of the explanatory stories. Here’s a general introduction by Nick himself:

The anagram stories Stephen Jones has been resolutely issuing arose from a specific combination of circumstances. First, amongst professional classical music singers, the 80s and 90s were a high point for tours, residencies, and CD recordings, all of which furnished extended periods of having to sit patiently around—time used in various ways, crosswords, knitting, books and magazines; there were not yet smartphones or iPads, had they already existed it’s unlikely that these texts would ever have developed.

But in 1984 I had been introduced to the work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo, which added to my early enthusiasm for Mots d’heures: gousses, rames and an appreciation of word games of various sorts (though I never enjoyed or was much good at Scrabble, oddly: I think it was the element of competition which spoiled it). Such games had a much more serious aspect for me (as indeed, to a hugely greater extent, they did for Perec), through their function of creating “potential literature”—Oulipo is “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle”, freeing up through constraints. Having always been keen on writing, I nevertheless had found myself unable, every time I tried, to write imaginative fictional narrative; what began as a collaborative pastime (many anagrams, and certainly the best ones, were deduced by colleagues, once I’d proposed a source text or name) gradually morphed into a generator of unlikely yet rigorously underpinned stories.

As to the process, during recording sessions etc. I collected from volunteers and compiled my own anagrams, which I then joined up in whatever form of narrative appeared possible, permitting myself any old punctuation but always (the few exceptions are noted in the text) sticking rigorously to the sequence of repeated anagram matrices, with the same letters repeated each time, never overlapping nor transposing—no cheating for effect (however tempting). At first that was as far as I thought of going, but it soon appeared that there was another level of interpretation waiting to be exploited, the “potential literature”, and I spent some months, or even years (in the case of Lili Boulanger and Johann Sebastian Bach) extrapolating the story I felt the anagrams were perhaps telling.

In addition to the nine Steve has published, there are six more which survive—several were wholly or partly lost during the course of time and specifically in a fire in our house in Portugal which destroyed most of my papers (and books) in 2009: the survivals are in great part due to Steve himself, and Charles Pott, a notable contributor, who had kept copies, backed up by a handful I’d managed to consign to the internet (most of the stories also predate the days of web-based email).

These other pieces are:

  • Israel in Egypt (anagrams only, stitched together but without parallel text, 1989)

  • Die Entfuhrung (sic—no umlaut, nor the missing ‘e’ it would represent) / Aus dem Serail (introduction + anagrams only, 1991)
  • Salzburg (introduction + anagrams of Beethoven’s Leonore/Beethoven’s Fidelio + story, 1996—probably the most substantial piece of the whole run)

  • Alceste (raw anagram list + anagrams + story, 1999)

  • Merano (intro + raw anagram list + anagrams + story + epilogue, 2000)

  • Oslo (raw anagram list + anagrams + sort of story + epilogue/more story, 2000).

These last two were envisaged as being integral parts of my reactions to the celebrations at the time of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and the many concerts in which I took part during that year. The last anagram piece I wrote of this sort (there’s since been an acrostic anagram sonnet for Fernando Pessoa) was indeed Johann Sebastian Bach, compiled between 2000 and 2021. There’s a hope that the complete set may eventually interest a publisher…

I still can’t write (and don’t believe I have written) fiction. I was just following where the letters led me.

Nicolas Robertson, August 2021.

* * *

[SJ:] With my penchant for zany indexing (see here, and here), I can’t resist compiling a selective general index of some of the more striking people, places, and themes that adorn the plots so far (just the anagrams, not the extrapolations!), and allowing characters to mingle freely after being trapped within the bonds of the individual stories that generated them. In the absence of page references, you can have fun working out which tales the entries belong to.

196.

index 1

 

197.
index 2 

198.

index 3

199.

index 4

Mahler—what problem?

Mahler 1907

I was stimulated by the fine harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani’s Alternative Bach series on BBC Radio 3, even if I disputed several of his points. In his new series, My problem with…, he again seems to be assuming the role of provocateur, “dragging the icon to the trash”.

To many, the programme on Mahler may sound like heresy. I can live with Esfahani challenging the idolising of Handel and Mendelssohn—indeed, I keep meaning to pen a similar tirade against Vivaldi’s vacuous four-square footling around with arpeggios (Fellow-iconoclast Nigel Kennedy: “Hendrix is like Beethoven, Vivaldi is more Des O’Connor”). Beethoven too, ably demolished by Susan McClary, seems to me like fair game. The reviews assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky in Lexicon of musical invective make an engaging, comical catalogue of early critics’ incomprehension of the great works of WAM from Beethoven to Stravinsky (including Mahler—see e.g. under Mahler 4); I’m even keen to question the hegemony of WAM generally.

But when Esfahani questions the symphonies of Mahler, I can only assume he’s totally deranged. One might imagine him as some heartless cerebral professor tinkling away on baroque fugues, but far from it.

His five fatuous headings should prompt any music-lover to switch off at once:

  • I can’t remember a single one of his tunes
  • When he decides to write a tune it just degrades into kitsch or schmaltz
  • His orchestrations are consistently bizarre, to no discernible end
  • What’s with all this hypothesising and posing of musical questions…?
  • Mahler’s symphonies are endless…

To each of these questions in turn we may respond “WTF???” (for a similar appraisal of medieval estampies by a church janitor, see here).

Sure, it sounds like fun to ruffle the feathers of generations of godlike maestros (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, Rattle, Salonen, and so on and on: see under Conducting: a roundup), scholars like Henry-Louis de La Grange, and pundits like Norman Lebrecht, whose book Why Mahler? makes an engaging introduction.

While “Esfahani acting dumb” seems like a flimsy peg to hang a programme on, it’s not as fatuous as it sounds. Gradually we gather that he may be playing devil’s advocate, as he shows himself amenable to conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s arguments for the defence. We hear generous excerpts from the symphonies that, pace Esfahani, may even win new adherents to the Mahler fan club; and they have some interesting comments on changing performance practice. Weilerstein uses the 9th symphony to try and dispel Esfahani’s strange incomprehension of Mahler’s visionary orchestration; and one wonders how a sensitive musician can possibly be immune to the profundity of Mahler’s juxtaposition of spiritual and profane. But in the end Esfahani shows himself open to enlightenment.

FFS, just listen to the 2nd!!! The 9th! The 5th! The 6th! The 3rd! The 4th! The 10th!!! Even the 1st! And indeed everything under my Mahler series!

Perhaps Radio 3 concocted a contrarian tone because they thought yet another eulogy seemed too predictable. Go on then, give us programmes on “What’s the big deal about Bach anyway?”, “Mozart—was he just fooling around?” and “The harpsichord—it goes plunk, it goes plink”… *

The concept is highly reminiscent of Philomena Cunk‘s interview technique (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”).


* The latter borrowed from Clive James’s equally profound survey of Japanese culture

Improvising on Bach

Bach at organ

Portrait of Bach seated at the organ, 1725. Source.

Bach was renowned for his improvisations on the organ, and organists today still continue the tradition that has become attenuated in other branches of WAM (see Unpacking “improvisation”). So in an invigorating Sunday-morning Prom (on BBC i-Player until the end of August), Martin Baker alternated his own improvisations on organ works by Bach with the original pieces—which presumably had a life as improvisations before he committed them to paper.

Proms organ

Of course, whereas Bach himself improvised in the tradition of his time (in the style of… Bach!), today’s organists improvising on his music have the whole diverse soundscape since then as their palette, though Baker opted for a relatively traditional language (indeed, some modern players like Robert Levin on fortepiano even improvise in the style of Mozart). Baker ended with a stimulating improvisation on English melodies familiar to the Prommers.

Here he is with an earlier, um, medley on Bach themes:

He was standing in for Oliver Latry, for whose remarkable performances *do* refer to my post on French organ improvisation—which also includes his elaboration on the B-A-C-H motif, as well as a film of Messiaen himself at the age of 76 playing three resplendent improvisations!!!

It all goes to show that

Bach’s Organ Works

(cf. “Ivor Bolton organ“).

For a roundup of posts under the Bach tag, full of wonders, see here. And note Nicolas Robertson’s remarkable verbal fantasy on Johann Sebastian Bach!

Hosanna—J.S. Bach!

Anagram tales 9: Johann Sebastian Bach

guest post by Nicolas Robertson

For a general introduction to the series, see here.

Prelude—SJ
The grand finale of this third trio of anagram tales, this wonderful fantasy is much informed by Nick’s own research on Bach, with plentiful allusions to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage among his typically diverse cast.

* * *

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH
Series of concerts and recordings December 1999 –January 2001, 250th anniversary celebration of Bach through his church cantatas, performed each on the liturgical calendar day for which they were written, in places as closely as feasible linked with the original performances; or with the composer himself; or with places dear to or chosen by the director of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner. English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, multiple vocal and instrumental soloists.

Bach denkmal

J.S. Bach Denkmal, Arnstadt.

Impossible to encapsulate JSB in an anagram, and I didn’t think of doing so, I reckon, until some time into 2000. The letters were not inviting, as well as too many to control; but on one long bus journey Stephen Varcoe came up with the gem included below, and I understood I had to have a reciprocal try.

Compiling the anagrams took the whole of that year, on and off; the parallel story has taken a bit longer. A substantial part was in place by 2003, John Eliot Gardiner’s 60th birthday, when I submitted an early version of the finale. But the ‘story’ hadn’t been committed to any imperishable medium, and was lost in our 2009 fire. (The anagrams, such as they were, haphazardly survived in a disc I made when leaving the computer on which I’d typed them in London, in 2007, and miraculously had the nous to send to myself by e-mail before the fatal day).

The commentary, though substantially already imagined, has necessarily had to be re-derived, sometimes from scratch, over the subsequent two decades. It follows what I can remember of the original apprehensions, from the anagram matrix, and carrying on…

146 anagrams, in strict rotation. Here goes my 19-letter Passacaglia, followed by a Fantasia on the same ground:

HOSANNA—J.S. BACH!

  “Béni !”
   “Ta. Hosanna basic, jah.”

Bent: “Bach Jain hosanna best.”
   “Jain Shoah ebbs. Can’t an Osanna —”
   “H !” (aitch)
JSB bane. Banish abject hosanna.

JSB: “Ché ? No shit, Anna !”
   “Baa”—Anna hatch babies on J.S.
JSB: “Ach, isn’t Anna boa!” (he is absent.)
Johann, a Bach: “An Eis’nach Abba!”
St John = SANCTI JOHANNES

ABBAH

Bach: “St John as Bean, in a thin assonance.”
   “ABBAH?”
J: “Ach, ja, hab Noten in Baß.” [1] Josh Abba, ancient ash’n Eis’nach nabob.
Jan: “Hast BA?”
   “Has insane chant job”—Anna Bach. “Has-be’n? JS? Toi??”
Bach (in jeans—bathos): “An anabasis, JC ohne NT. Bah, bah, an incessant job.”
   “Ah, JSB canonist? Bane…”
   “Ha ha,” J.S. Bach hones Anna bait, “chess, Anna B.?”
   “Jah, bon, ta, I…”
J.S. Bach, Anna—Tao.

H. IBSEN
   “Hans O. Jahn St., cabbie!”
   “Na. Hans? – ja, a bench bastion, cannabis hash-bean, jot NASA cash. Joint, B. Behan?” Behan: “Ban scat jois? Nah! ‘Cats’ jois ebb, Hahn ‘Nana’ hath a nonsensic jabba, an incessant Noh jabba. The job’s ‘Banish Canaan Banana’! – Shona jest…” (hic) “B-banana jibes,” chants. “ ‘Oh, I eat bananas’ – John B’ch’s banjo shanties.”
   “Na – Bach? J. Bach an’ sons bathe in a Bosnian casbah.”
Janet: “A-Anne?”
   “I shan’t casbah job, shabbiest Canaan john.”
Can job astonish Behan? “Joint, Abbess Hannah?”
Can Hannah? Abbot: “Jessica? O henna nacht, Jass babi!”
Abbess Hanna chant “Joi!” Abbess’ hijo chant “Na-na!”
Abbot: “Jinn Cessna, ha ha! Jess, Hannah, botanic BA – ”
Johann: “Athens BA basic.”

* * *

BAs? Joanna Hitchens, BA.

* * *

John B.: “The CIA’s bananas!”
Bananas—a Hitchens job (John as a cabinet has-b’n).
Jessica O’Bannan hath Bishan B., Shane, Jan Cabot—bah, Jan Cabot, ‘sanshine’…
   “Jinnah nab seacoast, H.B.”
   “Jinnah?”
   “Eton, BA –”
   “– cash BAs. NB neo-Janata bacshish.”
   “Non-Janata shish-cebab Jahan’s sahib NT beacon – ‘bacon bhaji, nan’ – the ass!”
   “Netaji Bose, ANC ban, hah!”
   “Sai Baba, natch, Jens, hon (hasten bhaji, son – an’ cab) – he Johnian (Cantab) bass!”
A.Besant: “Bach’s Johnian?”

A BATH ABC
Nash, In. Jones (Ian ‘Sabbath’ Jones, nach.) Jones? a Bath cabin. Nash? Bath ascension, jah. Nab cabin Jonathan bashes. A casino? nah, Jebb hasn’t.
J. (sob): “The china bananas!” Icon: Saab; Shah; Taj. Benn, Hanoi bachante, S.J., bans Jinnah, Botha (“an abcess”—abcess, Johanna? in Bath??).
Basic ash’n be Jonathan: “I scan ‘H’ sonnet – ABBA, jah? ‘Ban’e’snatch, Jab’ !”
   “No Shia!”
   “Beat B.S. Johns’n! Aa… chain Satan, can banish Hob.”
J.E.: “Ancient bash: Jason. Bah! Johanna’s B’nai B’ith case, Canaan Josh’a, ten shibb–”
   “Jah. Sheba, BC—an onanist!”
   “Ba’ath ’n Hossein ABC, Jan?”
   “Jes. Ch. ahanatos ibn ban Jocanan Bathsheba sin. Bashan benison, jah. Act chasten Jonah.”
   “NASA bib?”
   “Ten-inca hash, baas…”
   “Bon, J. –
        Habas [beans], join, catch,
        Jain ass, a bohnen batch
   “Baba-ja?”
   “Ten-shi chanson?”
   “Chthonian Jaen’s Abbas enchants Habana (obs.). Anna (ij.), bin Jacob’s sheath. Bacon a Jansenist? Ahab?”

* * *

Joanna: “Stein ABC: A B Shh…”

* * *

Johnnie bans a cat-bash: “Nab Jonti, ha!” Bash a scena: Jonti, Hanse scab-ban.
   “Ah, Hansi C’onje bats—nab! Ha!!”
Bet on Hansi C.: Sha’ja’ ban. Abbas – Sha’jah – innocent. Hans—a jab, both canines.” [2]

J.S. Bach has inane baton, J.S. Bach nabs henna iota!

ABACABA 
– “John—thinness?”

NB JSB’s ‘Ninth’ echo: [3]

AAAA

* * *

J.S. Bach, Anna, anise both: ‘Ache, Sob, Jab, Sin.’
Nathan: “JS,” (Bach) “no absinthe?” Ann? Abba cash, honest injan…”
   “Hinab!” Chaos et…
JSB: “Anna! Anna—snobbish Taj ache.” (Ban insane J.S. Bach oath.)

* * *

   “Abbot – Jenni – a Hans Sachs, an Aachen hobbit’s…”
Jan: “Noh ! Banshei! a JSB cantata beano!”
Nin has J.S. Bach in sash, Ecbatana john. B-Beth, John: “Anabasis? Can John B., a Sachsen Ta’iban, ban Nash Hanseatic job?”
   “Bach Iona’s best, Jan.”
   “Nah” – Jan. “Bach? Iona? SHAN’T!”
EBS nab Bach, astonish Jane, bin John’s Sabata ache.
N.J.: “I, the Hon. N., ban ACAS, as ban a snobbish Janet, ach.”
Ban cane? John abstains: can’t bash a shinbone, ja. “Josh has a BBC antenna—I ban he in sonata.”

* * *

J.S. Bach: “Bassinet, banjo, ha ha, c’n-can sahib…”
   “The banjo’s an – a ! – Johann Schein sabbat…”
Johann Sebastian: “Ah!…”

 C B

– “Johann? Hansi? aa…”

 C B B

(E.T.S.) [4]

* * *

HOSANNA—J. S. BACH

Praise be for JSB!

   “Bless you!” – Johann has sneezed, perhaps.
   “Thanks. Makes me think that ‘praise’ is the root of it, yes.”

A musicologist writes: “I like Bach’s praise music best when it lines up with a non-violent pre-Christian ethical world-view.”
   “Practitioners of which used to be harried, a bit less now, I hope. But couldn’t we extend ‘Osanna’ –”
   “Excuse me, there’s an H in Hebrew: it’s Hosanna.”
There’s no agreement, curse it; discussion of praise music founders.

* * *

   “What? is that really so, Anna?” Sebastian exclaims.
Anna, a bit sheepishly, has told Johann she’s pregnant.

   “Wow, what a girl!” Sebastian cries – and exits to take evensong.
His cousin, another Johann, who’s with them today (the Bachs come and go between each other familiarly), reassures Anna, “He’s like the boss in the old Eisenach days!”
Sebastian nips back in, looking for a rebus he’s made for the St John. “I like this small shift in harmony, could provide a laugh.”
   “But where do you get that B natural from?” Johann pleads.
   “Oh, it’s ok, just listen to the bass line”—Sebastian likes to tease the older Eisenach generation.
Jan, whose connection is unclear but who’s obviously entitled to be there and equally obviously allies with the conservative faction, asks “Do you really have the qualifications to risk this?”
Anna cuts this off with a cheery “A mad Cantor job, that’s what he has. But Sebastian’s not finished yet, ARE YOU?”
Bach, who’s taken off his top to put on his cassock—looking touchingly informal, in his jute trousers—responds seriously, “Look, I’ve been making my way up, as if I were Christ without yet the New Testament. But, oh god, there does seem to be no end to the work that has to be done…”
   “Right, but you spend your time making fugues! Sod that…”
Sebastian laughs, he’s above this, and turns to Anna, with an offer he knows she finds it hard to resist, “How about a game of chess before the service?”
Anna’s all confused, thinking she’d been left out of the conversation, “Well, if you think there’s time – yes – thanks – ok –”
Johann’s happy to know the two are on the same wavelength.

* * *

“I knew Herr Jahn,” the taxi driver confided, “he was a stalwart of the judiciary, but wasn’t averse to a joint or two, or a subsidy from the space programme. Speaking of which, can I tempt you, Herr Behan?”
“As long as you don’t go on about free jazz. I’ve had enough of Lloyd Webber, fin-de-siècle musicals don’t make sense to me, any more than japonaiserie. Scare off African potentates, that’s what I’m here for.” Noting a coolish reception from the driver, Behan temporises, “that’s a joke I heard in South Africa…” but he couldn’t resist breaking into song, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’…
He’s delivered safely to the British Council, where the staff ask if he’ll be referring to Bach, whose year it is.
“You what? As far as I’m concerned, let the whole Bach family go and enjoy themselves in a Yugoslav thermal brothel.”
Janet, an intern, asks “Oh, do you think Mrs Bach would go along with that? I wouldn’t accept it, sounds like dodgy Middle Eastern sanitation.” But Behan is imperturbable, and he spots a nun he recognises:
“Join me in a joint, Hannah? Abbess and all?”
An abbot across the room has heard this, and calls over with words echoing Lorenzo’s in The Merchant of Venice, “Go for it, lass!” (no one had ever heard the Abbess’s real first name before, Jessica) – “How sweetly sleeps…”
Hannah/Jessica, liberated, cries “Bliss!”, and her ‘son’ (presumably an acolyte monk) echoes.
The abbot, after veering inexplicably into Indian subcontinental politics (or can that be where he met Jessica, now Hannah, abbess?), launches “Do you remember that devilish monoplane, oh, how we laughed! Jess, ok Hannah, you’re the one who knew about plants, even got a degree for them!”

– across a few centuries, Johann in Leipzig wonders if Sebastian shouldn’t have got a qualification from the Greek academy, for a start

– but for the value of a university degree, I ask you to consider Joanna Hitchens (and I ask her indulgence).

* * *

Meanwhile, in Chichester, the cathedral organist, coolly sceptical, opines over sherry after Sunday Matins, “The US secret services have gone pear-shaped.” That’s what we would expect from the Hitchens brothers, vying with each other for conspiracies.
   “Wouldn’t you have liked to be a politician?”, JB is asked. Well, yes, he’d had his chance. There are some quite outspoken guests, among them associates of the Dean who’d served in the army in SE Asia. I already overhead Jessica mentioning an Indian spin bowler, plus Alan Ladd, and the Boston founding fathers (oh the bright new dawn long promised, those slave traders who spoke only with god) –
   “I remember when I told Helena Blavatsky that Jinnah wasn’t going to be content without a sea port.”
   “But Jinnah was one of us!”
   “Yes, British education, qualifications…”
   “One could buy them. And look how that’s turned into nationalist Hindu free-loading.”
   “Thinking of the Hinduists, I just ordered a beef skewer takeaway, image of the Taj Mahal, that National Trust signpost, in mind. But do you know what the man said? ‘You want a pork fry-up, with onions and chapati?’—what a twit!”
   “This is like infighting between freedom fighters,” interposed Jens, an old Indochina hand. “Netaji Bose thought it more important to oppose British colonialism than worry about alliances with the Third Reich or Japan—hero to Indian nationalists, ‘a common traitor’ to your father. Not sure how South African Gandhi supporters saw him, though.”
“And what about another charismatic guru, Jens, my dear” – I hadn’t met this couple before, but they’re clearly keen to get out of the Vicars’ Close and enjoy their takeaway on the coast, they’ve booked a taxi—though they can’t bear to leave an argument, only had to because the taxi arrived.
But as they go, a tantalising throwaway: “You know JSB sang at St John’s Cambridge, as a bass?”
Annie Besant hears this, and to her credit can hardly believe it is so.

* * *

What you need to know about Bath
Talk of Bath, and you talk first of John Nash, and Inigo Jones. But did Jones build more than a garden shed? While Nash, he saw Bath going up in the world, oh yes. (Still, I wouldn’t mind that shed, Jonathan, since you seem not to think much of it.) Neither of them planned a gambling resort, nor did the Oxford philosopher.

How fragile the past is! I remember a reception in the British Council home on the Île St Louis in Paris, where I and a colleague, our gestures becoming expansive with hospitality, knocked a crystal ashtray off a mantelpiece, which shattered distressingly around our feet. Our hostess was impeccable, she had it cleared up in no time, and told us, “Please don’t worry, the person who gave it to us is dead now anyway.”

This makes me think of memorable images, and how they can fade. Saab – who remembers those stylish cars? The Shah of Iran? The Indian restaurant in York where I saw Victor Lewis- Smith once successfully pay with a library card? Tony Benn’s memoirs tell (or would if they hadn’t been redacted) of a Jesuit having a high old time in Saigon, ignoring both Indian and South African politicians, of whom one was a boil on the body politic—

I must have been muttering aloud to myself, for “A boil? did you hear that, Johanna? – and in Bath!”
Jonathan went pale, at least to the level of his foundation make-up: “Let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve digitalised one of the love poems, it’s got that Keatsian rhyme-scheme, nicht war? like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Snark’ – ”
   “That’s a pretty fundamentalist interpretation.”
   “But avant-garde at the same time! Or eerie, like Quatermass, dig up and pin down the old evil!”
John Eliot says this is an old set-to: “It’s all in the Golden Fleece.”
   “OK, but this is actual: Johanna’s tied up with the Israeli nationalists, a historic second-generation fighter, ten commandments set in st—”
   “—yes, but it didn’t start there. Long before, an exogamous queen, after her own pleasure…”
   “Jan, can you give us an up-to-date secular run-down on this?”
   “Ok, if you can keep up, it’s a bit convoluted. Jesus Christ, who is deathless, is the metaphorical son of John the Baptist and Solomon’s mother. This transgression is compensated for by the fecundity of the fat bulls each brought to the union, right? It’s fair to say though that the prophet Jonah felt personally humbled by this deal.”
   “Till he was spoon-fed by the Pentagon.”
   “Not to speak of limitless supplies of peyotl, big boss.”
   “Fine, Jen, but I’d like you to know there are other virtues in plants:

Fava, runner, haricot bean,
Makes a donkey an Indian Queen

   “Yevtushenko? A witch’s spell?”
   “A song for active meditation?”
   “Look at it this way. A Pakistani bowler once thrilled Cuban observers in the earthy olive groves of Andalusia (in those days when Cubans played cricket, not baseball). Anna, now living under another name, deliberately neglected to insist Jacob put on the condom. These are accidents, perhaps determinant, of history. Does that make Bacon, who predicated binary computing machines, a predeterminist? Did it have to be this way? Did you have to carry to the end your existential antagonism with the white whale? Was the story only ever you/it/he/she?”

Joanna, looking on aghast, sympathises with Gertrude Stein’s abdication, after much struggle and play, in the face of so many letters.

* * *

The final set of borrowed (burrowed?) images includes a small, rather sad, cricket vignette—as is apparently inevitable, my medium seems to have a predictable set of stand-bys. This one can be quite precisely situated: it’s the time of the infamous match-fixing scandals involving the South African cricket set-up and specifically the captain, Hanse Cronje, a fine upstanding batsman who went dismally wrong. I think there was a tournament in Arabia at about this time where for once the authorities showed their teeth—who knows if they bit all those responsible?

But JSB himself was not immune to unruly behaviour (though I don’t have reason to think corruption as such was ever attributed—hot temper and intolerance perhaps, and a tendency to collar the Thomas-Kirche’s calligraphy ink allowance). Perhaps he didn’t take it so well, when a colleague heard a theme he was working on—curiously redolent of the ‘Dies Irae’—and wondered whether there was enough substance in it. (Another sketch adumbrates a clearly Beethovenian motif, which just shows one can never know what may give fruit later, and furthermore that minimalism goes hand-in-hand with polyphony).

* * *

Sebastian and Anna are playing games with making up cantata titles—they’re both a bit fired up by absinthe. [We too used to do this: I recall, from Stephen Varcoe and/or Richard Savage, Mein Stimme ist mit Scheiss bedeckt, and Ach Gott, du stehts auf meinen Fuß.]

   “How about Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?”
   “Brilliant! A bit over the top, but go for it!”
There’s an apprentice with them, who can’t quite follow this, and wonders if they should keep off the anis.
   “Anna,” says Johann, “don’t you think that’ll put us on the best-seller lists, truly?” Nathan’s insulted by any suggestion of selling-out, and threatens who knows what sort of mayhem. Sebastian, calm, just says to Anna, “Don’t worry—he has this old idea of Indo-European hierarchy.” Though he then swore softly; but I won’t transcribe what he said, it sounded a bit crazy to me.

* * *

Somewhere, a little while before the Bach Pilgrimage, the office are discussing progress with the idea. They’ve got a highly placed cleric, a beloved singer, a small wizz-kid from Aix-la-Chapelle…
Jan, who’s everywhere, says “Think of Japanese theatre! We’ll go down singing in glory! It’ll be a great Bach-fest!”
Nin immediately imagines scenes with Sebastian dressed in exotic robes, in some sort of Persian latrine. Beth (I stammer as I address her, I’m so nervous, especially as John’s with her) questions the concept of ‘anabasis’, return to the source – “Do we think that Sebastian, who is by way of being a Thuringian fundamentalist, would accept a British makeover of a Baltic town?”
We’re called back to the matter in hand. “I’m sure we should concentrate on Iona as a high point, Jan.”
   “Sorry, I personally won’t be doing Iona.”
And so the English Baroque Soloists get the Iona gig, surprising Jane, and assuaging JEG’s problems with the recording.
The Honourable representative intervenes to outlaw temporising views, ‘no industrial negotiation, and no smart-alecs either, phew’.
Would she even rule out corporal punishment? JE keeps out of it, no knee-capping here. Most importantly, don’t let Radio 3 pirate this—I’ve spotted one of their mikes in the mix—watch out in the ‘Sancta Maria’!

* * *

   “Do you know,” Sebastian murmured to Anna, “I can hear low clarinets, I can hear a strumming continuo instrument, wow, I can see the old masters dancing to our tune….”
   “That—guitar, is it?—can launch you and all your predecessors into a jamboree…”
But JSB’s already hearing something else, is it birdsong, sounds from the future, from another country? “Ach, listen…”

CB

   “Johann? Sebastian? Hansi? Are you there? Oh…”

CBB

CTS

Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives of the Hunted (1902).

Nicolas Robertson, 2000 –2021.


[1] Anagram by Stephen Varcoe.
[2] Anagram by Charles Pott.
[3] The penultimate bar, violins: AAAA.
[4] Amongst the stranded letters in the final anagram, I’d already realised that ETS could mean Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian nature writer I’d loved when young; but I had no idea what the still unattributed letters (CB CBB) could do until I looked him up in the British Library.

On piano—Gustav Mahler!!!

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

Welte Mignon

Early piano rolls offer an intriguing but elusive glimpse into the sound-world of early-20th-century composers (see Clair de lune).

Mahler 1905

It’s always frustrating that we don’t have recordings of Mahler himself conducting his symphonies. But stopping off in Leipzig in 1905 on his way home to Vienna after a performance of the 2nd symphony in Berlin, he recorded a session on piano roll, reproduced with the new Steinway Welte-Mignon system. It includes

  • Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
  • Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (from 3.05)
  • the finale of the 4th symphony (from 6.06)
  • the 1st movement of the 5th symphony (from 14.14).

Of course, being familiar with Mahler’s opulent orchestrations, one has to adjust to the limited instrumental timbre; but it’s wonderful to hear his music closer to the source of his inspiration, free of the crowd-control necessitated by conducting a large orchestra. He plays the 4th with a flexible, improvisatory feel that is hard to achieve with clarinet and voice accompanied by orchestra. And he relishes the extreme, manic contrasts of the 5th symphony.

Mahler roll

More comments here and here. And here’s a short documentary from the Gustav Mahler Museum in Hamburg.

See also the remarkably effective chamber arrangements of Mini-Mahler.

My fantasy wish-list for filmed performances includes Mahler conducting his 2nd symphony, Bach directing the first performance of the Matthew Passion, and the rituals of Li Manshan’s illustrious Daoist forebears at the Zhouguantun temple fair in 1942.

With thanks, as ever, to Augusta!

Haydn for football

The Euros remind me again of national anthems—like an archaic, stilted Eurovision Song Contest. Italy’s song is a mini-opera, and it’s hard to beat the exuberance of Brazil’s anthem, or the drama of the haka. La Marseillaise (1792) is very fine too:

Kaiser

As to the German anthem, Joseph Haydn composed Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser in 1797, in honour of Francis II of the Austro-Hungarian empire (wiki here and here). After the song became the national anthem of Germany from 1841, the lyrics continued to go through several revisions under successive regimes.

Written in response to Britain’s plodding God save the king * (superior suggestions here), it’s among several melodies of Haydn said to be inspired by a Croatian folk-song. The song alone outranks the British anthem, but Haydn soon elevated it as the theme for variations in the transcendent slow movement of his Kaiser quartet—tastefully played here by the Quatuor mosaïques:

With All Due Respect, renditions at football internationals don’t quite rise to such heights. But of course, chamber music and football matches serve different functions

For some more exquisite Haydn, see here

 


* My usual homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I didn’t know we ’ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective”.

Imagining the New World

Dvorak programme

Like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto and Clair de lune, another of those concert pieces that suffers from over-familiarity is the New World symphony (1893) of Antonin Dvořák (1841–1904).

It was one of the very first symphonies that I played with my local youth orchestra. Hard as it is to put aside the jaded accumulations of convention and the Hovis ad, I was reminded how remarkable it is in concert at the Barbican in 2015—as if one could wish for anything more after hearing the divine Hélène Grimaud play the Ravel piano concerto in the first half.

The symphony was commissioned by the New York Phil during Dvořák’s stay as director of the National Conservatory there from 1892 to 1895—when he also composed the cello concerto. At a time when white settler-colonialists were busy taming the Native Americans they hadn’t already massacred, anthropologists like the Franz Boas circle were taking such indigenous cultures seriously. Dvořák too proclaimed an interest in Native American music and African-American spirituals:

I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.

However, while he may have heard Iroquois performers in Prague in 1879, in the States he had little exposure apart from hearing the African-American student Harry Burleigh at the Conservatory singing spirituals for him. Indeed, commenting on the symphony, Dvořák wrote:

I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.

Actually, as this NYT article points out, American composers such as Henry Schoenefeld were already making experiments in incorporating African-American musics (see also Tom Service’s introduction).

Rafael Kubelík was renowned for his interpretation; here he is with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1977:

and Celibidache with the Munich Phil in 1991:

Mahler, who corresponded with Dvořák and performed his works, went on to have a more lasting relationship with New York. The next generations of central European composers such as Janâček and Bartók would have a deeper ethnographic interest in documenting the musical cultures of their homelands; and among WAM composers the fashion for Turquerie, chinoiserie, and the sounds of the Mystic East continued.

Melody: the major 7th leap

In the melodic lines of both late romantic and popular music, upward leaps of both minor and major 7ths are common—the latter is a particularly striking expressive feature.

A few instances, over sumptuous harmonies: Mahler relished the interval, such as in the finale of the 9th symphony:

mahler-9andMahler 9 hornsRichard Strauss favoured it too, such as this glorious passage in Ein Heldenleben, where the massed horns hijack the recapitulation, with a repeated phrase ending in a minor 7th leap, then—amidst heady modulation—yet another one, culminating in a blazing major 7th:Hleben horns 1

 

Hleben horns

I’ve already offered you Carlos Kleiber‘s version (with the above passage from 23.39); here’s Mengelberg and the New York Phil in 1928 (from 25.00):

And a gorgeous major 7th leap adorns the glowing string melody of the slow finale (from 35.40, in three flats):

Hleben finale

In the Four last songs, Beim Schlafengehen is animated by the leap—as at the opening, in the gorgeous dialogue between violin and singer, and the final horn solo. Here’s the beginning of the violin solo (in five flats):

Strauss violin solo

and the climax of the vocal part, with leaps of first a minor and then a major 7th:

Four last songs 2

Henry Mancini used the major 7th leap to wonderful effect in Moon river, and it’s a quirky feature of Burt Bacharach’s Raindrops keep falling on my head:

Raindrops score

The leap of a minor 7th can be highly expressive too, as in Billie Holiday’s extraordinary You’re my thrill.

Further instances welcome…

At the other end of melodic movement, see Unpromising chromaticisms.

Meanwhile, undistracted by the harmonic element, Indian raga is a classic locus for exploring monophonic pitch relationships, mostly based on conjunct intervals…

Mozart in Barcelona

Palau

Concert halls are only one among many types of venue for musicking around the world, and I find many purpose-built modern halls uninspiring and impersonal. But among the many delights of Barcelona, the Palau de la Música Catalana (1905) is one of the most magical buildings (see this fine introduction). Concerts there are always special.

In 1991, among the countless performances commemorating the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, we performed the Requiem and the C minor Mass with John Eliot Gardiner and the amazing Monteverdi Choir (singing from memory!):

In the latter, note Anne Sofie von Otter in Laudamus te (from 10.41); and the Et incarnatus est (from 36.57) is gorgeous, culminating in Barbara Bonney’s cadenza with the wind soloists from 42.55.

Palau 2

For a different kind of magical musicking from Barcelona, note The magic of the voice and sequel. And for a linguistic fantasy, see here.

See also A Mozart medley; and for the EBS fixer’s message inviting me to take part, click here.

Nubile gorilla

Anagram tales 6: Lili Boulanger

guest post by Nicolas Robertson

For a general introduction to the series, see here.

Prelude—SJ
This is Nick’s longest treatment so far in this series, almost a novella—subsuming the Middle Eastern conflict, Free France, the Cathars, Jacques Brel, a furniture-making course, the UNESCO football team in Lagos, an organists’ outing, and Nubia—with a moving dénouement. See also my own tributes to Lili and Nadia.

* * *

LILI BOULANGER
French composer (1893–1918), younger sister of Nadia (1887–1979). Concerts and recording, 1999, with the LSO and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner (who studied with Nadia).

Boulanger CD cover

192 anagrams, in strict sequence, of the 13-letter matrix, followed by an explanatory ‘story’, in whatever language came to hand.

This is no.11 of the anagram pieces I composed between 1989 and 2002; it’s the first, I would say, in which I attempt to go beyond a strict mapping of anagram/story, and venture into some narrative of my own. In my overall introduction to the series, I explain why it was precisely my inability to do this (write a freehand story) which lay behind my adoption of anagrammatic ‘automatic writing’. My excuse is that the scenes glimpsed elliptically in the course of the anagrams suggested to me larger panoramas, which I needed to explore more extensively to be fair to the letters’ fragmentary vision.

So for the Albi section in particular I resorted to some autobiographical material (and a fable from the Panchatantra), and for Lille too, where I was also influenced, in a generic way, by a story of J.L. Borges, as well as by the art nouveau heritage of the town itself.

The reader will judge better than I can the success of this strategy. I can’t regret deploying the associations which the anagrams themselves germinated, but the results leave me a bit ill at ease.

There’s another, quite distinct, circumstance to be taken into account with ‘Lili Boulanger’. I had completed the anagrams by the end of September 1999 (as indicated in the present text). The accompanying story took longer, and was put together over a period of a few more years, mostly during periods of work in London or on tour, though I believe it was substantially done by 2002. At any rate the whole piece had been completed, but only partially typed up (and put on a floppy disc) by 2007—and only up to the end of the Lille section of the story. This was the truncated part I had the wit to send to myself in an email: not all such accounts were web-based in those days. Our fire in Portugal in early 2009 destroyed not only most paper documents but also all floppy discs and CDs, as well as the computer itself and its hard disk.

Thus the final narrative sections, all after the Lille episode, have been reconstructed from memory during the last few years; they lack some of the detail which I know I had tracked down, specifically in Nubia and Egypt, but are as true to the original aperçus as I could manage.

* * *

LILI BOULANGER
   “O Rubin! Illegal! Ali’ll—” [BenGurion].”Ill…?” AlOur Begin“Lo, ‘Bulgar’ Eli!” – I?
   “OlàIrgun libel,” begin our Al, “Lil’ El Al lingo…”
I rub liberal gun oil, a billionLuger, bare loin. I gull Rabin: “Loge! Ulli! Liban grouille, Ulli Legobrain.” Ulli anger boil.
   “U… obligé!”
   “Iran’ll bull IRA legion.” I? I’ll ogle urban guerrilla. “NB oil, Ali, oilbungler, oil’ll ruin bagel…”
   “Liban gloire!” Ul… Leila gun brio! Luger—bon, I’ll –
Aï!

* *

Iron Gaulle: “Lib – ”
Gaul libre? Loin. Berlin IOU gall; nul Albi gloire, Albi grenouille labouring, illGaul—in Loire (blub)—la Loire! linger… No Gaul lib (il gain boule rill), all blue origin. Gr… beau lion ill. I long Brel, lui, à l’agile Libourne, Brel, la gui’nol. I—I, Raoul Belling—lui, Brel, a lingo: I unlog braille, I null Albi ogre, Balin. Le roi Lug! Lui!

Noble grail.

LB pic 1

[GRAIL? NI!!]

* * *

   “Boulle?”
   “All Gobelin, Rui. Burin goal, ille, ruling lobelia.”
   “Elgin—blur a loi?”
   “Ol’ Elgin burial.”
   “Ai! Gullible, Ron?”
   “Gullible on air. No liberal. Ugli?”
Glen: “Oil o’ Blair, ‘u’ regional bill, Blair, lounge li…”
   “Ug. ‘Lionel’ Blair…”
B.O.

LULL

Nigeria. Rogue ball: 1–nil. Eli blur in goal. Lor, il a bu! Nigel (Nigel A. Burillo):
   “Rolling, ’e, il a bu gill in Euro lab.”
   “Bull—ale origin. Ale or gin.”
   “I – 
   “Bull!”
Gin—rue Balliol“Lo, binge lair,” lu our ill Belgian, Raul. “Gill, Niobe?” Niobe all girl, ‘u’, nubile gorilla. “I lug renal boil, I rung ill (Ebola), oiling rubella, ill—large bunion.” O, gullible air! “Ill, lurgi—o bane! – I blur galleon…”

* * *

I go urban Lille, au boring Lille. Rob Lille gal in our Lille bang. I uni Lille Garbo—ubi Lille organ?
L … Laure – boiling –

* * *

NUBIA
‘El Grillo’. Onager. Bill, lui, air lounge.
   “Bill?”
   “Ali, Reg? Bullion!”
   “Lor’!”
   “Ubi Agnelli?”
   “Gerona. Ibi Lull.”
   “Go—Iberian Lull? Olé, a bullring! I – I’ll bug aileron.”
   “Ignore Bill.”
Lua. “I’ll ignore.” Blau, la lune, Rio glib. La lune 
   “Gil, biro.”
   “Nebula ?”—oil girl Gillian Rouble. “Leo, Libra, Gil nu?”
   “Bon, girl! Eulalie?”
   “Gloria in blu’, lo!”
Alluring bile. “Banlieu, ol’ girl. A billion gruel.”
   “O, gruel in billabong!” Allure“I lie—Goan Lilliburlero! Lug in Bali!”
Ego all in blur, I, N. (‘Boileau’), grill brill. Louange? ?? “Oi! Ungrillable! Bali rouille n.g., N.R.!”
   “Aiolibulge!”—Lou. “Bengali rill. Gibier?”
   “Nul.”
   “Allô allô?”
Lune. Big rig, blue lilo. I ranunlabel oil rig.
   “Oi!”—Niall, bugler. “U – ”, Ollie blaring, “lo urinal bilge.”
Niall bougre, il, ignoble liar, lui, nubil, allegro, unlilo a gerbil (all Brie), oil gnu, ill Boer. In Gaul, longer alibi.
Lua…

* * *

   “Ole Bull,” I grin. Nubia—Rogé, Lill, “urbane Lill,” I go. Nullo GabrieliIona. Lulli, Berg.
‘Go, Liu’ (‘Li’l Abner’), our lag Bellini—lo, Bellini ragù! Io liberal lung. Bing, Elli—(Raoul!)—Luba ‘il Re. I long Gillian Loeb, urbell on ‘Liguria’. L. Borgia nulle. I, lorn…
Lua. Liebig le loi…
   “Brian, lug our ale billing. ’lo, Lilian Grube!”
   “’lo!”
I? I brung—alleluia!—Bollinger.

* * *

Böll: “Gin, Luria?”
   “Beluga.” Blini lager lou’.
   “Niro, Lil?” (e.g. Lil in labour).
   “Illiber’l guano.”
   “Brillig!”
   “Âne, Lou. Llaregub loin,” il gribouille. An alien lour, glib.
   “Lo, B. Luini glare!”
   “B. Luini allegro—Luigi, noballer.”
   “ ‘Lear’ bingo—Ulli?”
   “ ‘Blau, ill, Goneril – ’ ”
   “ ‘– Regan, boil’ ” (I lu)
   “ ‘I boil lung…’ ”
   “ Lear??

* * *

Nile log burial… bull religion, boiling laurel; bull, or—ii!—angel. Gabriel? No, lui, Logi, Belial—run! L…lo, Ariel bulgin’ (‘Ariel’: lu ‘goblin’, il a goblin lure), ‘l’Aiglon’ Uriel belabouring ill Lili 

Blue organ. INRI—gall—o blue Eboli lira lung.
Un albergo, Lili… urbillig, alone. Rouge bilan, Lil.

Lo, un Lili Grabe.
Burial.
Lil gone.

London, July–September 1999.

LB grave

* * *

No doubt I wasn’t the first,” wrote David BenGurion in his (unpublished) memoirs, “to wish that my similarlymotivated colleagues would stay on the right side of the law. WasnMenachem a case in point? How could we wish to give more ammunition to the Arabs? Yet the ethos of the group, the sensation that all were against us, militated against openhandedness. When I tried to draw their attention to this, I was met by precisely the sort of prejudiced stereotyping which should have proved my point. But under conditions of war, it seemed to us, the niceties of human discourse were dispensed with. I was called a selfstyled Balkan priest, while another comrade thought even that was too good for me, that my Spanish exile was causing me to slander the underground movement, and that I stood, by now, for little more than a sort of Broadway inflightmagazine Zionism…”

I was reading this as we sat in the control room, Rabin, Ulli the Lebanese Israeli, Ali the Israeli Arab. I hitched up my shorts so that the lubricating oil we used so plentifully wouldnstain the cotton, and carefully anointed my revolver. I knew it was the most reliable weapon we had, a gun in a thousand, and couldn’t resist teasing the others, who drew from lower down the armoury.
   “Wotan’s sidekicks! Vous ne comprenez pas that Lebanons up in arms, you buildingblockhead?” Ulli seethed, I could tell, but he knew he couldnt let it out openly.
   “Th… thanks for the news.”
   “Khomeinis mullahs will make the Irish cohorts look like dairy cows…” I wasn’t interested in the subject any more. I was looking at a ‘Wanted’ poster on the concrete wall, of Leila Khaled. I couldnt decide if she was attractive because of herself, or because of what she did, shirt halfopen, Uzi at the ready; but I couldnt keep my eyes off her. What was it that gave us this fascination with leftwing (exclusively leftwing, mind—if thats what they really were—no neofascist ever got a lookin on this melancholy rollcall) activists, women and even men, Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader—never a hero, actually, but Holger Meins, JanCarl Raspe, Astrid Proll—Patty Hearst wasnt serious, she was a sort of John Travolta convert 
– I smelt a terrible smell of burnt oil, and realised that Ali was warming up vegetable oil to use as a substitute for the proper gun lubrication, which he’d probably siphoned off to put in his jeep. I wouldnt complain about this, we all did it, except that he reused the oil in the bakery, and as a result the pretzels tasted dreadful…

So, after all, I was caught unprepared. My antihero/heroine surprised us thinking about food. The sun caught her gun in the doorway, as, brandishing her Levant warcry, she pinned us down, nothis way, now that, and with an ache I admired her panache even as I struggled to release my own pistol, good, I thought, yes…
I wasnt in time.

* * *

“Non! Non!! NON!!!” Thats the de Gaulle some of us know, lhomme de fer, and perhaps its true that at certain points in history itmore important to be able to say no’ with conviction than to accept. Even so, saying no’ sets up a wall which must either be knocked down later, or sidetracked, or backed away from. If you say no, you should simultaneously be saying ‘yes’ to something else, to a wider freedom, not stopping halfway…
And France was not free. Far from it. It depended on German repayments, a bitter pill to swallow. Raoul Belling, grandson of the inventor of the electric oven, and dreamer of druidic dominion, descended the slope behind Albi cathedral, to the gravelled walkway beside the river Tarn. An early morning mist was lifting from the rivers surface, as if burnt off by the great Apocalypse of the cathedral screen which hung hot in his mind, and he winced at the thought of how Albis huge red longbrick towers now stood for nothing, their Cathar legacy of gnostic communion reduced to the status of the poor frog he saw in an eddy, struggling to breathe, clearly poisoned by some pollution in the river. In his mind, the narrow Tarn broadened to become an image of the Loire, that vast river which is, like its territory, ever changing, reflecting the sky, yet ever massively the same, pouring on between its châteaux and vineyard flanks—France!

Tears started behind Raouls eyes as he slowed his pace, to take in his thoughts… “But France is not free!”, Raoul cried. As he walked on, kicking furiously at clumps of grass by the riverside, he came across a driedup rivulet where heonce played boules, in a time now lost in an indigo fog of memory. He gritted his teeth, growled into the thickets. “Our fine lion couldnt overcome even a unicorn! Ah, how we need a Jacques Brel, who could pillory and glorify at once! ‘Ça sent la bière’, aussi le vin, it could be Bordeaux, Libourne on the shoulder of the Gironde” (looking out over Arcachon where Lili Boulanger went once hoping to restore her lost health)—but Brel presides over all, the pantograph of pantomime – .

Raoul remembered his visits to the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris, in the Cour Chaptal in the 9th arrondissement: so close to Ary Scheffers house where Georges Sand and Chopin called, and to the little theatre where Alfred Jarry first threw Ubu Roi’ at an unsuspecting world—‘Merdre’, a fine opening line for 1896—and to the house where Nadia and Lili lived… Brel continues to speak for us, hadnt he written

On a détruit la Bastille
Et ça n’a rien arrangé
On a détruit la Bastille
Quand il fallait nous aimer

‘Aucun rêve jamais / Ne mérite une guerre…’ No, that wasnt the way. Hadn’t he also sung, in Litanies pour un Retour,

Mon Coeur ma mie mon âme
Mon ciel mon feu ma flamme
Mon puits ma source mon val
Mon miel mon baume mon Graal

That was it! ‘Le retour’, as of a King Arthur, waking up himself and his people—‘voilà que tu reviens’!

[Mais pourquoi moi, pourquoi maintenant, et.. où aller? (…)
Mais qu’estceque jamais jai fait d’autre—qu’arriver?’ – J.Brel, Jarrive]

“And this,” cried Raoul aloud, “is where we need our old woodland god, Lugh! Light, clarity! The striking of the midday sun into the forest glade!” Raoul, metaphorically booting out the inner infidel, aimed a kick at a broken pot in the grass verge, suddenly depressed again, knowing that light cant exist without dark, and unable to see his way from one to another, yet sure this was a worthy quest…

He didnt see, bound up as he was, the shard that hed kicked into the undergrowth. It might have born an unnerving resemblance to the Grail he so ardently sought… and it did carry the relic of an inscription which strangely echoed—or prefigured, so timeworn did the fragment appear—the motto of the Revolution.

There’s no way of ascertaining the original text of this lost inscription, but a tentative reconstruction might go as follows:

GAUL LION LIBRE ?
OUI, SI ÉGAL IN LOI, BRÛLEZ PAS DANS LE
FE
U ILLÉGAL—IN BROTHERHOOD
AND SISTERHOOD, ÔC!

And a translation might be: ‘Is the Lion of Gaul free? Yes, if equal in law, burn not in the illegitimate fire [we can take this to be a reference to the savage Languedoc persecution of the Cathars, and similarly, given the prominent role taken by women in the ‘heretical’ movement, complete the final phrase with the necessary implication]—unissezvous, frères et soeurs!’ and ending with the Occitane version of the initial northern French ‘oui’ (prudently moving these last unconventional words round to the unseen side of the vase). It may be surprising, but is certainly heartwarming, to find English mixed with French in this inscription from medieval southern France; testifying to a sense—an actuality!—of fellowship and elision of national (and regional, and linguistic—òc!borders at a time when everything seemed against them.

No one, to my mind, has explained better than Rudolf Steiner the precise application of the famous triad which this Albi fragment adumbrates:

Liberté—in thought
Egalité—in law
Fraternité—in economics.

Try jumbling up the categories (as do almost all modern societies): they dont work, you have chaos.

But there are those who prefer not to think about it, much less try to aim for it as a goal (or grail)even some chivalric orders dare not contemplate the true implications of their allegiance, preferring to dally in a shrubbery.

* * *

On the last day of the FurnitureMaking Techniques course we gathered in the piano nobile of the Musée CognacqJay. Rui, the Brazilian student, hadnt quite memorised the historical module, but it didnt matter.
   “Not marquetry, but tapestry,” I reminded himEngravings over there: look how the artist has directed the chisel point, to bring out the overriding floral motif.”
   “Monsieur –” broke in a French student. “Do you think the Parthenon marbles have the right to stay in England? Aren’t the legal grounds a bit shaky?”
   “Can’t you let that hoary subject lie?” retorted Ron, a blunt English student.
   “Oh, Ron, are you so easily taken in?”
   “When anyone’s listening. I dont believe in a freeforall, unlike the socalled socialist government, if that’s what you mean. Would you like an exotic fruit, by the way?”
   “That Blairs unctuousness is spread all over the Highlands,” interposed a Scotsman. “Devolution’s only of use to the welloff, people at home in smart salons, like him, the slim – 
   “Yuk. You make him sound like a mediacourting balletdancer.”
Oh, imagine the slight scent of his overheated body in the green-room…

* [alchemical pause] *

One of my less likely career moves was to take up an appointment as manager of the UNESCO football team in Lagos, West Africa. I remember all too well the only match for which I was (nominally) responsible. Eli, in goal, was totally pissed, and when by mistake the Nigerians knocked the ball towards him he reacted like streaked lightning and missed it. Opinions on the touchline were varied, if strongly held.
   “Hes been at the samples in the laboratory,” reckoned Nigel, a scientist of Latin American descent.
   “Rubbish,” I snorted. “This is just too many beers. Or spirits.”
   “Well, look…” Nigel tried to insist.
   “Rubbish!” I cried again. Didn’t he understand that individual drunkenness was infinitely preferable to the suspicion of misuse of official chemical supplies?
But as I remonstrated, I was suddenly flooded by the recollection of another summer’s day, in my college rooms in Oxford, arriving back from a lecture in the Classics Faculty, where my view of the beautiful Greek sculpture of Niobe had been interrupted only by the even more beautiful profile of the girl I hadnt yet dared to speak to, but surely, after Id poured myself this drink, I would  – I would  –
   “Youre drinking in your hidden memory,” Raul interrupted my bittersweet reminiscence, his sallow face unsullied by irony. He wasnt well, but he generally made nothing personal of it, in his unfluent Belgian English, as if it were merely a sequence of unpleasant things which might be happening to a mutual acquaintance. “You liked to have been Eric Gill, artist lover of fifty, Niobe, fifty times loved?” How did he know? But he didn’t see Niobe like I did, full of animal desirability and yet, somehow, on my social level.
   “My kidneys got a chronic abscess, I had to call in sick with Legionnaires Disease, my scarlet fevers suppurating, Im malade, Ive a great boil,” continued Raul. He looked so innocently surprised by all this! And then, suddenly, he burst out in horrified misery, “I am not well, I have a sickness, o curse! And I cant make out any ship that might carry me home…”

* *  *

This year’s Organists’ Outing was to Lille, in northern France. None of us knew much about it, except that it was a big, dull city. But as our interest was simply in the instrument in St M— Church, this hardly worried us.

For everybody else, thats how it remained, and perhaps remains to this day. But at threception when we arrived—verbena tea, almond biscuits—I found myself next to a dark French girl with a ringlet of hair hanging over her ear, which fascinated me. As we listened to the welcoming speeches, she removed a hairpin and shook her curls free. She put the kirbygrip on the table next to her namecard, which had a Lille address on it. The clip was of some matt alloy, and seemed to be shaped like a nymph, or siren, whose fingers, held above her head, merged back into the metallic matrix. Without understanding why I was doing it, and as she was looking in another direction, I took the card and the brooch from the table and put them in my pocket. Perhaps to prevent her having the opportunity to notice this, I asked her in a rush, when she next looked round, if she was going to the dinner after that evenings recital. She replied “Je préfère être seule”. Soon after, she left, without another word.

There was still an hour and a half to go until the recital. We would only meet the organist afterwards, so the others were setting out to discover a few Lille cafés. I took out the card from my pocket, and read the address. In Lille things work well, except the motions of the heart, and I was able soon to be walking down the street where she, perhaps, lived. (Though even amongst my colleagues, carefully ensconced in the centre, all did not necessarily go smoothly: one member of the group, directed aurally to the restaurant ‘Lutterbach’, spent an age trying to find ‘Le Tabac’.)

Heading, as I felt, away from civilisation, after many minutes I found myself in front of a stone porch, on each side entwined with carvings of bay trees. Above it I took in moulded forms of male and female figures playing, disputing, nymphs with locks cascading over their ears and gods priapically rampant, yet none quite touching another, always reaching… and as the evening sun hit the horizon and blurred my sight, a warm heavy summer rain started to fall, which began stealthily to wash away the details of the carvings in their soft sandstone, starting with the protuberances and ending with the eyes…

I looked at my watch and realised that I was far too late to attend the recital, where perhaps she was. I returned to the city centre, and took the night train back home. I would have put all this behind me, as a dream, but have not been able to forget that at one moment, as (already unmanned, stammeringin my mind) I was looking at her namecard ‘Laure…’, her wrist inadvertently brushed mine; and my skin still felt as if scalded.

* * *
NUBIA
The setting is northern Africa—desert wilderness mingled with the appurtenances of multinational oil extraction. Its night.

A lone cicada sounds across the landing strip (I think with nostalgia of Josquin). A wild ass trots across the floodlit patch in front of the terminal. I’ve come to meet Bill, who’s taken refuge in the only cool place, the airline lounge.

Bill tells us theres a delivery of gold ingots, asks where the Turin industrialist is. reply hein Catalonia, just where Ramon Llull worked—by a curious coincidence, on the transmutation of base elements into gold.

Bill, quipping about tauromachy but amused by the Lull connection, wants to keep an eye on all this, but we agree to leave him out of the loop. A great moon, blue at first, begins to rise over the airfield. A Copacabana moon, which somehow doesnt convince… I’m thinking hard as I go through the usual astrological banter with Gillian Rouble, perhaps not her real name, as she seems to be connected with Russian oil oligarchs. Some of her pithier expressions make me wonder why I ever fancied her (Eulali’s quite fun), but she turns the conversation round till I hardly know who I am (a French man of letters?) and am persuaded to set up the little barbeque we have, and prepare some fish fillets. However Ive failed again—hoping for praise, I’ve brought out as requested my special Indonesian garlic sauce, but it’s gone off, and everyone declares it inedible. Havent I any game instead? Non. The teasing goes on.

Desolate, I look out over the runway, where the moon is looming more and more. And in its blue light, I see something strange on the oildrilling tower: protective suits, an inflatable mattress—I need to change the labelling urgently, and sprint across the field.

Ive been spotted, alas, by Niall and Ollie, whose job it was, but who always exaggerate grossly when anything untoward happensAs I try to cover up whatever unnatural coupling is going on, we swap globetrotting repartee, in a game I think Im losing, but at least I may have avoided official disgrace. Wed get off more lightly in France…
I blame the moon.

* * *

Elsewhere in Nubia… discussions about the coming arts festival.
   “Lets think about the residential course,” I smiled round at the committeeHow about historical fiddle techniques in Scandinavia? And then the main programme: for our desert climate, something classical—Debussy, Beethoven, bourgeois excellence, piano recitals under the stars. We won’t have Venetian renaissance, thats being done in the Scottish Isles.”
   “But we could have French baroque?”
   “How about Expressionism?”
   “I think theyd like stylish musicals mixing Puccini and Broadway, a medley of Italian opera (we could sell pizza in the interval), singers who can let out to their hearts’ content…”
   “White Christmas?”
   “… and a couple of turns by our own stars ” I round up, “that means you, Elli, and Raoul, and to crown it the majestic Organosova.”
Its a fine lineup, for a first season, but Im just thinking of my lost girl, with whom Ichimed as if for the first time on the cruiseship over from Italy. She was no Lucretia, but…

The moon sailed higher. I considered the condenser rules in our homebrew store, and had a better idea. There was another girl, after all, and Brian to sort out the paperwork, and I’d a supply of—glory be!—champagne.

* * *

Notes on a meeting between the German writer [Heinrich] Böll and the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria [unless it is the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria, but the context seems to favour the former].

Böll: “Will gin be alright?”
Luria: “Just give me caviar.” Yes, and no doubt pancakes, and several beers, that would be like him.
   “Have you seen any good films lately? And by the way, I hope Lilianas pregnancy’s going well.”
   “Gullshit is deposited most selectively.”
   “Wow,” Louishis secretary, exclaims. “Lewis Carroll, yeah?
   “You ass,” Luria groans, “it was meant to be Dylan Thomas, though admittedly not very close.” And he tries to settle his face into a Martian scowl.
Böll again: “Ach, Ive seen that look on a fresco in Milan!”
   “Luini’s too cheerful—I was thinking of an Italian with a crooked elbow.”
Böll: “There’s an idea—we could play Shakespeare consequences! Ulli,” (that’s me, the interpreter), “I’ll start.
‘Blue, ill, Goneril 
’ ”,
   “ ‘Regan, seethe’ ”, I read.
Luria: “ ‘Stewed tripe for me…’ ”
   “That’s not Shakespeare!”

* * *

LB pic 3

The world of the dead, in ancient Egypt, lay on the west side of the Nile: one moved towards the setting sun. And one moved by boat, of course, a boat carved or constructed out of wood. In other times, and places, rites might be associated with bulls and bull games (Minoan Crete), Pythian oracular mysteries (Delphi), or—oh! Hebrew, Mithraic or Christian angels. In this case, not the annunciating Gabriel, as were talking of a death. There are other forces, Loki, Baal, best to keep out of their way. Look, look… another mercurial spirit, Ariel, whom we think beneficent though he can have a demonic aspect—and now Gabriel’s counterpart, the summer archangel Uriel, who presides over Lili’s illness, plucking at her insides like the eagle at Prometheus’ liver.

But Crohn’s seems like a moon illness, a poor person spreadeagled on the crux of their own anatomy. Acrid as the bile given to the hung Christ (but Christ stopped at Eboli…). One can understand though why Lili Boulanger tried to turn to the sun in Arcachon (I did the same myself, seventy years later, hoping to salvage a disappearing love). However there was no cure even if you could pay for it, in any currency.

I can imagine Lili, in extremis, looking to find anywheraway, however simple, however cheap, by herself, knowing her account had passed into the red; but the trouble remained inside.

Lili Boulanger was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre. I have visited her grave, where she was joined by her elder sister Nadia over sixty years later, and I didn’t feel her presence there. I was glad, as that meant she is now everywhere.

Nicolas Robertson, London – Lisbon 1999–2021,
with acknowledgements to Charles Pott, Tom Phillips, Rachel Wheatley, inter al.

Boullanger plaque

A Mozart medley

Mozart

Source here.

Whereas my Mahler series is rather detailed, the appearances of Mozart on this blog are often en passant. But exquisite. Here’s a little roundup.

Opera—notably our wonderful tours in the 1990s:

And three remarkable anagram tales by Nicolas Robertson:

The piano concertos:

See also

And the Sinfonia concertante may have been the inspiration for

Lastly, can the woman on the far left here really be

Constanze

Mini-Mahler

Mini-Mahler

Here’s an original excursion in my Mahler series.

For all their massive tuttis, the textures of Mahler’s symphonies often have the feel of chamber music. Not only do chamber arrangements afford more opportunities for performance in times of austerity, but once one adjusts they bring their own rewards (for a useful post on the wider background in WAM, see here). The loss in scale is a gain in intimacy.

group

Left to right: Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen,
Anton Webern, Erwin Stein, 1924.

After Mahler’s death in 1911, Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances was active in Vienna from 1918 to 1921. Among the contemporary orchestral works arranged there for chamber ensemble (Berg, Webern, Erwin Stein, Hanns Eisler, and so on) was Mahler 4 in Stein’s 1921 arrangement. Here it is in full:

and the gorgeous slow movement:

Schoenberg had begun arranging Das Lied von der Erde, a project realized by Rainer Riehn in 1983. Chamber versions of the symphonies have become popular since 2008, with versions by Klaus Simon and others. Here’s his arrangement of Mahler 1:

and the world premiere of his Mahler 6 in 2019:

The Ensemble Mini (site and YouTube channel) has recently recorded the 9th and 10th symphonies. Here’s a trailer for their recording of Klaus Simon’s arrangement of the 9th (with seventeen performers!!!):

with the complete symphony available on Spotify.

And a trailer for their Mahler 10, from the finale (arranged by Michelle Castelletti):

Here’s the 9th as performed by Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain, directed by Pierre-Alain Monot:

While such versions can never replace the glories of Mahler’s massive symphonic soundscape, they make a refreshing complement. Cf. Mahler’s 1905 piano rolls.

Not to be confused with Great works missing the crucial element

Clair de lune

Debussy salon

Like many classic “lollipops” (such as the “Air on the G string“), Debussy’s Clair de lune (1905, from the Suite bergamesque) is such an ubiquitous media soundbite that I’ve always tended to switch off after the first phrase—like meeting a beautiful person with the word “CLICHÉ” scrawled in lipstick on their forehead. Nor is it helped by the sentimental renditions of glossy superstars. But at long last, overcoming my reluctance, I am properly immersing myself in its magic.

It was inspired by the poem of Paul Verlaine:

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune.

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

Here’s the first of Debussy’s two vocal settings, from 1882:

As to the piano piece (composed with the sonority of his Bechstein upright in mind), we have a precious 1913 piano roll. Debussy did make rolls of his Children’s corner suite (see here); this one too is widely attributed to him on YouTube and elsewhere, but appears to be by Suzanne Godenne (see here, leading us to the detailed scholarship of Roy Howat). Anyway, I love the tempo (Andante!), and the rubato. While the reliability of piano rolls as sources has been much discussed, perhaps this gives an impression of the performance style of the day:

And typically, I’m a great fan of Hélène Grimaud’s rendition (on her 2018 Memory album)—again with plentiful rubato:

Some may say that Debussy already builds rubato into the notation, subverting the 9/8 metre with tuplets and syncopation, thus making further rhythmic latitude superfluous, even harmful, except in the passage where he actually specifies rubato (from 0.54 in the 1913 recording, bar 15); but I’m all for these more fluid interpretations.

CDL rubato

The piece also suits the harp, such as this (very slow!) version:

I wonder if Noor Inayat Khan played it…

It was orchestrated by the splendid André Caplet:

and arranged by Leopold Stokowski for a scene from Fantasia, later deleted:

Here’s David Oistrakh with Frida Bauer in 1962:

For a rendition on the ethereal theremin, see here.

It has inspired jazzers too, such as Kamasi Washington (2015):

On a lighter note, here’s Slim Gaillard, again in 1962:

Clair de lune is the subject of a programme in the BBC series Soul music, with salient comments by Philippe Cassard.

CDL score

For Mahler’s piano rolls (also from 1905), see here. See also under Reception history; and do explore Ravel too (starting here)!

The Bach passions

For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—

Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:

Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück,
Seinen Gott verneinet
Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick
Bitterlichen weinet.
Jesu, blicke mich auch an,
Wenn ich nicht will büßen
Wenn ich Böses hab getan,
Rühre mein Gewissen!

And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:

Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren        Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears
Dem Höchsten zu Ehren!                                         to honour the Almighty!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:        Tell the world and heaven your distress:
Dein Jesus ist tot!                                                     your Jesus is dead!

I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:

And then, just as profoundly:

Essential background:

As we embark on the long haul of the Passions, sinking into the opening choruses is a uniquely spine-tingling experience for performers and audiences alike.

John MS

The ritual calendar: cycles and seasons

Bach

In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.

Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.

Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).

On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *

Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):

Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.

Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.

Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.

Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000

was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.

Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:

There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]

One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.

As Gardiner notes,

The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.

Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:

For another of many doom-laden cantatas, see Lukewarm Laodiceans and puffed-up Pharisees.

As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.

Cantata schedule

After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.

Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.

For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:

But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:

Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.

Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:

The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:

Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes

high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.

(Cf. my fantasy of Bach on the erhu.) Indeed, the riches of Bach’s writing for the oboe are inexhaustible—as are those of world shawms! Returning to Gardiner’s own performances, here’s the Saba cantata:

Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:

In accord with the brief of ethnomusicology (e.g. works like Enemy Way music, or Thinking in jazz; cf. Pomodoro!), Gardiner’s study integrates social life, sound object, and doctrine, which lesser scholars often consider separately.

* * *

Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.

Whatever their responses, I never cease to envy them as they dutifully turned up every Sunday to be regaled with such extraordinary new music. And the musicians—imagine Bach’s oboist Johann Caspar Gleditsch when he got home after rehearsal:

“Good day at the office, dear?”
“You’ll never believe it when you hear what our new Kantor has given me to play this Sunday! God knows how I’m going to manage it—but it’s amazing…”

For the cantatas, Passions, and much more, see under A Bach retrospective.


* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.

Charles Ives

Ives c1948

Charles Ives, c1948. Source here.

Charles Ives (1874–1954) achieved considerable fame as the author of Life insurance with relation to inheritance tax (1918). But That’s Not Important Right Now. His music (mostly written before 1927) took much longer to be appreciated.

His style, At a Time When it was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, offers a most distinctive American take on playing out the clash of cultures, in a random montage of dissonant soundscapes—hymn tunes, town bands, and so on. See e.g. the ever-perceptive comments of Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.140–46, in a chapter aptly titled “Invisible men”) and Richard Taruskin (The danger of music, pp.51–9, 186–90).

Mahler, then being fêted in New York, admired Ives’s music—indeed, they shared a taste for incorporating popular soundscapes. Later, insiders like Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Kirkpatrick, Nicolas Slonimsky, Lou Harrison, and Bernard Herrmann began to promote his work, before it was popularised by Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s. John Cage, with his affinity for the random, was another fan:

I doubt whether we can find a higher goal, namely that art and our involvement in it will somehow introduce us to the very life that we are living, and that we will be able, without scores, without performers and so forth, simply to sit still to listen to the sounds which surround us and hear them as music.

By the 1960s The unanswered question (1908) was a popular concert item:

How impressive to recall that my enterprising teachers at the time expanded our horizons by choosing this for my school orchestra, in a concert that also included Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye!

Paolozzi

Edouardo Paolozzi, Central Park in the dark some forty years ago,
from Calcium light night series (1974­–7).

Here’s Central park in the dark (1906, original title A contemplation of nothing serious or Central Park in the dark in “The Good Old Summer Time”!), with Bernstein and the New York Phil:

Another crucial influencer of our musical tastes was Pierre Boulez (see tag). Here he is with the Cleveland orchestra in 1970 in Three places in New England (1911–14) :

That’s a good, wacky start…

Mahler 1

Mahler 1889ish

Here’s a new post in my Mahler series (see also Conducting: a roundup)—going back to the beginning.

While Mahler’s more monumental later symphonies tend to dominate the attention, his 1st symphony is also most affecting, bearing all the hallmarks of his style, with its extreme contrasts of spiritual and mundane (wikide La GrangeTom Service).

Mahler, still only a junior conductor, had recently moved from posts in Prague and Leipzig to Budapest, where he directed the premiere in 1889.

tubaThe symphony opens with a primordial hushed unison A seven octaves deep. The bursts of energy (both bucolic and stormy) that emerge are constantly disrupted by mystical passages referring back to it (e.g. from 9.38 in the Tennstedt performance below—including the famous ppp low F entry on the tuba at 11.07!).

The mood of the Ländler that follows (rustic, but never simply jovial) is again disrupted by the funeral dirge of the slow movement, reflecting the recent losses of Mahler’s parents and sister, with the “sepulchral whine” of a solo muted double bass in a minor version of Bruder Jakob/Bruder Martin/Frère Jacques (cf. Bill Bailey’s recasting of the Match of the day theme!).

Mahler 1 bass

This too is interrupted by a “sudden twist into ribaldry” evoking klezmer—an early glimpse of Mahler’s incorporation of what wasn’t yet “world music” (see Norman Lebrecht on Mahler 4; cf. Mahler and the mouth-organ, and Mahler 10), with the band directed to play “like miserable village musicians” (Discuss…). For Lebrecht it evokes Chagall’s Fair at the village (1908); from the same year is The death.

Chagall

Chagall, The death.

In the finale, misterioso moments in the strings continue to punctuate the exuberance of brass fanfares—like this distant memory of the gorgeous lyrical passage that replaced the turbulent opening of the movement:

Mahler 1 finale

From 52.38 in Tennstedt version below.

* * *

Here’s a selection of performances on discDimitri Mitropoulos made the first recording in 1940, with the Minneapolis Symphony:

(cf. his live recording in 1960).

John Barbirolli with the Hallé in 1957:

Bruno Walter with the Columbia Symphony in 1961:

As to live performances, watch out on You Tube for the reappearance of Leonard Bernstein‘s concert with the Vienna Phil in 1974 (I do like these Humphrey Burton films—even if the cool font doesn’t exactly compensate for the lack of women in the band);

Here’s Klaus Tennstedt live with the Chicago Symphony in 1990—showing why musicians so revered his conducting:

And click here for the equally revered Claudio Abbado with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2009 (horns with two especially magical muted ppp entries from 10.50—and standing at Mahler’s behest for the final triumphal fanfares, as with Tennstedt!):

While such conductors continue to retain a quasi-mythical status, these performances also illustrate a transition from the age of the remote dictator to a more collegial ethos.

We can’t now unhear the whole soundscape of the 20th century, or even Mahler’s later symphonies; but the 1st is even more moving in the light of his later path.

Le marteau sans maître

Marteau score

To follow Comment te dire adieu, a rather different kind of French chanson

Apart from the way that Pierre Boulez made us listen to 20th-century classics, his own works are remarkable. I’ve hardly listened to his Le marteau sans maître (1955) since my teens, but returning to it now, it remains a formative and beguiling aspect of a changing sound world (see e.g. these reflections by S-S-Simon Rattle).

The chamber ensemble comprises contralto with alto flute, viola, guitar (recalling Ravel and Debussy), xylorimba, vibraphone, and other percussion—whose varied combinations create a most exotic timbre.

Marteau sketch

Source here.

The xylorimba recalls the African balafon; the vibraphone, the Balinese gamelan; and the guitar, the Japanese koto. Boulez had long been attracted to non-European cultures. Over the winter of 1945–46 he immersed himself in Balinese and Japanese music and African drumming at the Musée Guimet and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. “I almost chose the career of an ethnomusicologist because I was so fascinated by that music. It gives a different feeling of time.” Still, in Le marteau “neither the style nor the actual use of these instruments has any connection with these different musical civilisations”.

Boulez 1958

Pierre Boulez, 1958.

Indeed, the influence of world music (as it came to be called) is much less obvious in Boulez’s music than in that of his teacher Messiaen. The sound world of Le marteau even recalls jazz, a more unlikely influence.

Here’s Boulez with Hil​ary Sum​mers and the Ense​mble InterContemporain in 2002 (Le marteau avec maître!):

Indeed, Le marteau has generated a vast amount of agonised discussion about cerebral comprehension and sensuous engagement. As ever, notation is a double-edged sword—best not to let it distract us at first. Analysis, while unnecessary, can be instructive—for Mozart, Indian raga, Beatles, Chinese shawm suites, and any music; in this case, again, I find it rewarding to listen without such benefit.

Punctuating the instrumental sections, the challenging, vertiginous vocal movements are settings of poems by René Char:

L’Artisanat furieux
La roulotte rouge au bord du clou
Et cadavre dans le panier
Et chevaux de labours dans le fer à cheval
Je rêve la tête sur la pointe de mon couteau le Pérou.

Bourreaux de solitude
Le pas s’est éloigné le marcheur s’est tu
Sur le cadran de l’Imitation
Le Balancier lance sa charge de granit réflexe.

Bel Édifice et les pressentiments
J’écoute marcher dans mes jambes
La mer morte vagues par dessus tête
Enfant la jetée promenade sauvage
Homme l’illusion imitée
Des yeux purs dans les bois
Cherchent en pleurant la tête habitable

Within the niche of modern WAM, Le marteau was, and still sounds, revolutionary; yet it can hardly compare with The Rite of Spring, which has attained wider popularity even while retaining its power to shock.

* * *

By the 1970s many avant-garde performers were just as keen on exploring the new horizons of Historically Informed Performance (see e.g. here); but for Boulez the ideas of early music were a curious bête noire. Taking issue with Roger Norrington (cf. David Hurwitz!!!), he sought to refute the movement (in the early music sub-category, note Taruskin, Playing with history, and Alternative Bach):

When Le marteau sans maître was created in 1955 the German school of percussion was relatively weak. People were accustomed to playing with two sticks. Today, it is done with four and the playing is very much easier. Ought one, on the grounds of authenticity, to return to playing with two sticks? Certainly not. This example really does show us what absurdity there is in the notion of authenticity.

Much as I love Boulez, it really doesn’t. I’d like to read this debate. Boulez’s point is about technique, not choice of instruments or style; indeed, if the result sounds the same, then it’s an underwhelming argument. But supposing the instruments, mallets, and timbres have changed since the 1950s, surely it would be revealing to play the piece now using those earlier versions. If a time comes when performers are estranged from Boulez’s aesthetic world, then it would be interesting to hear the piece played taking account of his own vision.

Toru Takemitsu

Takemitsu

The recent additions to my series on Messiaen (here and here) remind me that he was a major influence on Toru Takemitsu (193­0–96). Here I’ll just feature some of his works directly inspired by the traditional Japanese soundscape—though of course there’s much more to explore in his ouevre (wiki; see also e.g. Tom Service’s succinct general introduction).

Having spent his early years until 1938 with his family in Dalian in occupied northeast China, where his father worked as a businessman, military conscription in 1944 further alienated him from Japanese militarism and nationalism; coming to associate these—not incorrectly—with the musical traditions of Japan (see e.g. this article on gagaku), he was drawn instead to new Western Art Music. He extended his initial aversion to Japanese music to other traditional forms:

There may be folk music with strength and beauty, but I cannot be completely honest in this kind of music. I want a more active relationship to the present. (Folk music in a “contemporary style” is nothing but a deception). [Hah! Discuss!]

Indeed, by contrast with the value-free ears of outsiders, some younger urban native listeners often hear their own traditions as tainted by association with a repressive or stultifying establishment—such as Chinese and Moravian folk, English choral music, or Russian Orthodox liturgy.

So it was only from the early 1960s, partly through John Cage—another important inspiration for him—that Takemitsu came to value the Japanese concept of ma 間 “empty space” (exemplified by Noh drama) and began consciously to borrow from Japanese music. As he recalled:

One day I chanced to see a performance of the Bunraku puppet theatre and was very surprised by it. It was in the tone quality, the timbre, of the futozao shamisen, the wide-necked shamisen used in Bunraku, that I first recognized the splendour of traditional Japanese music. I was very moved by it and I wondered why my attention had never been captured before by this Japanese music.

Here’s the second story, “Woman of the snow”, from the soundtrack for Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964):

November steps

Best known among his Japanese-inspired works is November steps (1967), for shakuhachi, biwa, and orchestra, commissioned by the New York Phil at the behest of Bernstein, premiered under Seiji Ozawa:

For the same combination is Autumn: into the fall after a little while (1973):

Traditional Japanese music, notably the courtly tradition of gagaku, deriving from Tang China, had long inspired Japanese and Western composers. Henry Eichheim‘s visits to east and southeast Asia (for his trips to China, see here) led to works such as Oriental impressions (1919–22), including the gagaku-derived E[n]tenraku (cf. Japanese nocturne); in 1931 Hidemaro Konoye (who the previous year conducted the very first recording of Mahler 4!) made a more faithful orchestral arrangement of Etenraku. Both works were soon taken up by Leopold Stokowski in his programmes with the Philadelphia orchestra.

After the war, Etenraku was again the basis for Yoritsune Matsudaira‘s Theme and variations for piano [hmm] and orchestra (1951); he followed it in 1961 with the orchestral piece Bugaku. Also channelling gagaku were Henry Cowell in Ongaku (1957), and Olivier Messiaen in Sept haïkaï (1963)— to which I devoted a separate post. [1]

Reigakusha

The Reigakusha ensemble (site, largely in Japanese).

But now some composers actually began writing for the gagaku ensemble itself, as innovation became a significant subsidiary theme in the gagaku world. Takemitsu wrote Shūteiga for the gagaku ensemble of the Imperial Household (hichiriki oboe, shō mouth-organ, ryūteki flute, biwa lute, gakusō zither, and percussion), later incorporating it into In an autumn garden (1973), one of the most enthralling essays in the genre. Besides the Imperial Household’s own version, the sonorities of this recording, by the Reigakusha ensemble that grew out of it, are even more mesmerising (cf. this live performance):

Garden rain (1974), for brass ensemble, evokes the cluster-chords of the shō mouth-organ (so very different from the anhemitonic pentatonic organum of its Chinese ancestor the sheng!):

See also this interview with the enterprising shō performer Mayumi Miyata.

Just in case you suppose all these to be avant-garde creations far distant from their model, here’s some “traditional” gagaku:


[1] For the Japanese explorations of Eichheim, Cowell, and others, see W. Anthony Sheppard, Extreme exoticism: Japan in the American musical imagination (2019), ch.3. For other Western works inspired by gagaku, click here. For Western devotees of Zen, see The great Gary Snyder, and More East-West gurus; see also under Some posts on Japanese culture. See also Amazing Grace meets gagaku!

Messiaen in Japan

 

Messiaen Ozawa 1962

Messiaen with Yvonne Loriod and Seiji Ozawa, July 1962.

The exotic soundscapes of the Mystic East have long attracted composers, particularly in France (Berlioz, Ravel, Debussy).

Messiaen may be more commonly associated with Indian music (e.g. Turangalîla), but his fascination with Japanese culture goes back to his honeymoon there with his wife Yvonne Loriod in summer 1962. [1]

While the young Seiji Ozawa led rehearsals for a performance of Turangalîla, Messiaen, besides sightseeing and birdwatching, bought books and recordings of gagaku (cf. Laurence Picken, with whom he shared a love of birdsong), and attended an evening of koto zither, as well as performances of bunraku, kabuki—and Noh drama (see under Some posts on Japanese culture):

I delighted in the music, the steps, the slowness of the movements, and the extraordinary cries of the tsuzumi.

Noh 2

Noh drums, 1992. My photo.

After admiring Mount Fuji and Nara, they visited Hiroshima, guided by the Belgian Catholic priest Fr Ernest Goossens. The fifth movement of Sept haïkaï was inspired by a boat trip to the Miyajima shrine; his notes evoke many images that recur throughout his music:

The sea: salty smell, of seaweed and of water, and the scent of a grove of pines. Large red torii [gateways] in the sea. Marvellous red Shinto temple, maze of rooms, corridors, columns of red wood. Dark interior of the temple where the divinity is hidden (principle room), and the other temple (which one cannot see) with the invisible true God, behind the red torii, in the sea and the sky. Monstrous stone lions defend the temple—stone lanterns on the path beside the sea—the mountains velvety with pines. Sunset above the temple. From a distance one can see the torii against the evening clouds, orange, red, pink, violet. At night one can just make out the torii in the darkness—a full moon, gold and silver, with a hazy red halo, veiled by a thin strip of completely black cloud.

Torii

The result was Sept haïkaï (for piano, wind, brass, percussion including cowbells, and eight lonely violins!), premiered in 1963, with Yvonne Loriod on piano and Pierre Boulez conducting.

  • Introduction
  • Le parc de Nara et les lanternes de pierre
  • Yamanaka cadenza
  • Gagaku (from 7.36; for an earlier orchestral adaptation by Hidemaro Konoye, see here)
  • Miyajima et le torii dans le mer 
  • Les oiseaux de Karuizawa
  • Coda

The vignettes are purely instrumental—it is only the title that alludes to haiku. But I’ve composed a couple for the occasion:

Besides world music
Olivier Messiaen
Enjoyed his birdsong

Meanwhile in Cambridge,

Wise Laurence Picken
Finding gagaku too slow
Relished birdsong too

See also Toru Takemitsu.

 


[1] See e.g. Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (2005). Apart from the voluminous scholarly literature on Messaien (Paul Griffiths, Robert Sherlaw Johnson, and so on), good overviews of his ouevre are Richard Taruskin, The danger of music, pp.289–99, and Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.485–96 (see The right kind of spirituality?).

La nativité du Seigneur

Nativité stained glass

Nativity, Saint Denis, Paris, 12th century. Source here.

Eschewing tinsel, sprouts, and a plethora of meretricious seasonal listening, what better way of celebrating Christmas than immersing ourselves in the profound meditations of Messiaen’s monumental La nativité du Seigneur! It’s high time for it to soar to the top of the Christmas charts… (cf. What is serious music?!)

Even by 1935, Messiaen’s distinctive vision was fully-fledged, expressed through a unique harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic language, with extreme contrasts.

In French organ improvisation! (which also includes remarkable film of Messiaen himself at the organ of Saint-Trinité) I featured the joyous finale Dieu parmi nous, but you can hear the complete work on YouTube played by Oliver Latry, starting here:

I like the BTL comment “This music seriously messiaens with your head”. I set no great store by notation; it can be distracting as well as instructive, so do listen with eyes closed too.

The nine meditations are:

  • La vierge et l’enfant
  • Les bergers
  • Desseins éternels
  • Le verbe
  • Les enfants de Dieu
  • Les anges
  • Jésus accepte la souffrance
  • Les mages
  • Dieu parmi nous

Nativité score

This should lead us on to his monumental piano work Vingt regards sur l’enfant-JésusNote also Messiaen tag, leading to equally cosmic orchestral works (Turangalîla, Des canyons aux étoiles, Éclairs sur l’au-delà …), as well as his late opera Saint François d’Assise

Mahler 4

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

Klimt

Choir of angels from paradise, Gustav Klimt 1901.

Mahler 4, whose premiere the composer conducted in 1901, may seem like a less weighty, almost “classical” interlude in between the monumental 2nd and 3rd symphonies and the angst of the 5th and 6th. But different as it is, it’s substantial—a continuation of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn theme, with typical layers of irony (wiki; and here’s an essay by the authoritative Henry-Louis de La Grange).

Mahler 4 MS

In the words of Norman Lebrecht (Why Mahler?), “death is never very far from the children who play in its meadows”. At the very opening of the first movement, he finds the sleigh-bells “dangerous as a runaway car on a mountain pass, driving conductor and orchestra to near-chaos”. Still, there are intimations of a transcendent world (from 4.26 in the Abbado performance below, and again from 14.31), as well as an ominous premonition of the opening of the 5th symphony (from 9.54).

Death fiddleThe Scherzo is a Totentanz, inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s 1872 Self-Portrait with Death Playing the Fiddle, with the solo violin tuned up a whole tone. Mahler’s idea contrasts with that of earlier composers “dressing up gypsy music for family consumption”—Lebrecht goes a bit far:

He confronts civic society with its greatest fear, the untamed classes outside the law, and he exacerbates the threat by treating gypsy music not as a primitive sound to be colonised by an educated composer but as an art with a vitality and integrity all its own. […] The Scherzo is arguably the first multicultural work in western music and certainly the first before Bela Bartók to treat indigenous music with respect and admiration as an equal form of art.

The tranquil variations of the gorgeous slow movement are offset by a more clouded section in the minor—klagend, leidenschaftlich

Mahler 4 slow minor

After the return of the opening Ruhevoll mood, ***Santa’s speeding sleigh (from 41.52) hurtles headlong into a deep snowdrift (hmmI don’t really feel music in metaphors like this: I blame writing about music—cf. my programme for Mahler 10). This turns out to be another pathway to paradise, adorned by horns and then sumptuous strings à la Mantovani:

Mahler 4 adagio 1

Mahler 4 adagio 2

It’s interrupted by a blazing vision (from 44.25) modulating abruptly to the heavenly key of E major, combining a foretaste of the melody of the finale with the motif on timpani and plucked basses taken from the ruhevoll opening. This leads to the concluding pianissimo, “sehr zart und innig“—whose suspensions develop the string chords before the vision, now with Mahler’s ultimate Sublime Mystery harmonies:

Mahler 4 adagio 4

A clarinet emerging out of the silence introduces the final Das himmlische Leben, an innocent yet unnerving vision of heaven, marked “with a childlike, cheerful expression, without parody”. Hard as it is to find an ideal singer, it’s unrealistic to assess versions of the symphony purely on the singing, overriding overall timbre and choice of tempi. Early-music chastity, without sounding coy, may seem more suitable, but it still hasn’t quite replaced fruity warbling; while boy trebles have been tried, we await a version by a choirgirl.

Punctuated by manic reminiscences of the opening sleigh-bells, the poem (far from untrammelled—not suitable for vegetarians) also belongs with Mahler’s farewells:

Wir genießen die himmlischen Freuden,
D’rum tun wir das Irdische meiden.
Kein weltlich’ Getümmel
Hört man nicht im Himmel!
Lebt alles in sanftester Ruh’.
Wir führen ein englisches* Leben,

Sind dennoch ganz lustig daneben;
Wir tanzen und springen,
Wir hüpfen und singen,
Sankt Peter im Himmel sieht zu.

Johannes das Lämmlein auslasset,
Der Metzger Herodes d’rauf passet.
Wir führen ein geduldig’s,
Unschuldig’s, geduldig’s,
Ein liebliches Lämmlein zu Tod.
Sankt Lucas den Ochsen tät schlachten
Ohn’ einig’s Bedenken und Achten.
Der Wein kost’ kein Heller
Im himmlischen Keller;
Die Englein, die backen das Brot.

Gut’ Kräuter von allerhand Arten,
Die wachsen im himmlischen Garten,
Gut’ Spargel, Fisolen
Und was wir nur wollen.
Ganze Schüsseln voll sind uns bereit!
Gut’ Äpfel, gut’ Birn’ und gut’ Trauben;
Die Gärtner, die alles erlauben.
Willst Rehbock, willst Hasen,
Auf offener Straßen
Sie laufen herbei!
Sollt’ ein Fasttag etwa kommen,
Alle Fische gleich mit Freuden angeschwommen!
Dort läuft schon Sankt Peter
Mit Netz und mit Köder
Zum himmlischen Weiher hinein.
Sankt Martha die Köchin muß sein.

Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Elftausend Jungfrauen
Zu tanzen sich trauen.
Sankt Ursula selbst dazu lacht.
[ending with a descending portamento, by contrast with the frequent ascending ones for strings!!!]
Kein’ Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden,
Die unsrer verglichen kann werden.
Cäcilia mit ihren Verwandten
Sind treffliche Hofmusikanten!
Die englischen* 
Stimmen
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.

non angli sed angeli!!!

Note that hushed last verse, in the radiant key of E major—like that vision in the slow movement. For Mahler’s own piano roll of the finale, see here.

* * *

Lebrecht cites xenophobic early reviews, contrasting with comfortable later assessments:

  • Jewish wit has invaded the symphony, corroding it
  • A restless, nervous work
  • Nothing but Viennese corruption, carnival
  • No trace of spontaneity, not a single autonomous idea, no original feeling.

La Grange has more:

  • amusing himself by using thematic material alien to his nature
  • taking pleasure in shattering the eardrums of his audiences with atrocious and unimaginable cacophonies
  • incapable of writing anything other than stale and insipid music lacking in style and melody, music that, artificial and hysterical, was a medley of symphonic cabaret acts.

And for Lexicon of musical invective Slonimsky finds yet more scathing judgements:

The Adagio, barring an abuse of organ point effects, is at first harmless enough; but suddenly we are introduced to a circus scene. This may be a not unwelcome diversion for some; but without wishing to be traditional or pedantic, we cannot but remark that for us, at that moment, it was a shock and an unpleasant one. From a business standpoint it might be advantageous to utilize portions of this adagio on the pleasure boats which travel up and down the Danube in the spring. The bands could easily master any difficulties forthcoming in such appropriate extracts, and the Viennese ladies, munching sweet cakes, sipping light wine and flirting with handsomely dressed officers, would no doubt very much enjoy a dainty accompaniment to their conversation. [winner of the 1901 Rear Admiral Foley Award for Sexist Crap.]

And

The drooling and emasculated simplicity of Gustav Mahler! It is not fair to the readers of the Musical Courier [TweetySO UNFAIR! Cf. Peccable musical sensibilities] to take up their time with a detailed description of that musical monstrosity, which masquerades under the title of Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. There is nothing in the design, content, or execution of the work to impress the musician, except its grotesquerie… The writer of the present review frankly admits that… to him it was just one hour or more [sic] of the most painful musical torture to which he has been compelled to submit.

Pah! No pleasing some people…

* * *

Armed with this comprehensive review, here are some recordings that delight my ear.

Again (e.g. Mahler 2), long before the Mahler craze of the 60s, early versions are rich ground for studies of changing performance practice (see also Reception history). The first ever recording (mystifyingly cutting one of the most exquisite passages in the 3rd movement!) was made in 1930 by Hidemaro Konoye with the New Symphony Orchestra of Tokyo—a year before his own symphonic composition Etenraku, inspired by the gagaku piece! The singer in the exceptionally ponderous finale is Eiko Kitazawa.

If Willem Mengelberg‘s Bach is hard to take nowadays, in November 1939, on the eve of the German occupation of Holland (and as with Furtwängler and others, there have been attempts to defend his collusion with Nazism), he recorded Mahler 4 with the Concertgebouw and Jo Vincent. Though he’s remarkably cavalier with Mahler’s instructions (right from the huge rit. after the opening sleigh-bells), and his rubato doesn’t always work (like the cellos in the first “vision” from 4.38), it’s still wonderful:

Of several versions by Bruno Walter, there’s a recording of his live performance in February 1944 with the New York Phil and (singing in a kind of English!) Dési von Halban (daughter of the soprano Selma Kurz, whom Mahler himself, um, favoured just around the time he was composing this symphony); here’s their 1945 studio recording:

Walter also recorded the symphony in 1955, with the Vienna Phil and Hilde Güden; and in 1962, with the Concertgebouw and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Note also his Mahler 2 from 1948.

From the next generation, here’s John Barbirolli in 1967, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Heather Harper:

And Leonard Bernstein live in 1972, with the Vienna Phil and Edith Mathis:

Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony and Laura Claycomb, recorded live in 2003, is also very fine:

And among many versions by the wonderful Claudio Abbado, here he is live in 2009, with the exceptional Lucerne Festival Orchestra and Magdalena Kožená:

And I just have to remind you of the same team’s performance of Ich bin der Welt abhanden bekommen

 

With thanks to Augusta!

Four sacred pieces

Alongside the soundscape of popular celebration in Italy, we might think ourselves into the mood of late-19th century Italian Catholicism among the elite with the Quattro pezzi sacri of Jo Green—sorry, I mean Giuseppe Verdi, composed between 1886 and 1898.

In 1992, as early music kept on getting later (cf. The shock of the new), John Eliot Gardiner and the wonderful Monteverdi Choir recorded it, with me maintaining a suitably low profile on violin after a summer traipsing around Shanxi in search of, um, sacred pieces (shenqu 神曲, the core of the ritual suites of north Chinese ritual groups):

The whole piece, highly chromatic, demands close listening. Of the two a cappella movements Ave Maria and Laudi alla Vergine Maria, the first is inspired by the “enigmatic scale

Verdi scale

(with five semitones and four whole tones!!! Cf. Unpromising chromaticisms)—though I haven’t yet found it in Indian raga, I’d love to hear a dhrupad version.

For more a cappella, cf. Bruckner’s Locus iste, and The Real Group.

Folk traditions of Poland

String band, Polish highlands 1931. Source here.

My recent post on the great siege of Przemyśl reminds me to explore Polish folk soundscapes, which were somewhat outside my remit in surveying folk musics around east Europe but also deserve to be savoured.

As Simon Broughton observes in his useful Songlines update, since he edited the second edition of The Rough Guide to world music in 1999, Polish folk music has seen a dynamic revival akin to the earlier Hungarian táncház movement. See also the third edition (2009).

Fieldwork project, early 1950s. Source here.

Fans of “world music” have long made an avid audience for the folk musics of Hungary and Romania. Poland’s extreme sufferings in the mid-20th century (see also Bloodlands) were followed by state socialism and its sanitised musical “fakelore” (brilliantly dissected by Kundera for Moravia). But local traditions were maintained there too—and indeed collected, both before the 1939 invasions [1] and in the early 1950s, although official support for such fieldwork was an ironic casualty of the 1956 political thaw. Note also chapters in Music traditions in totalitarian systems, 2009 (slow to load, but worth persisting!). Cf. fieldwork in Maoist China.

So here, as is my wont, I seek more hardcore rural traditions, the inspiration for higher-profile bands touring on the world music circuit like the Warsaw Village Band, Kroke, and, notably, Janusz Prusinowski’s group.

Do explore the riches of Andrzej Bieńkowski’s Muzyka Odnaleziona site (for perceptive interviews with him, click here and here), along with hundreds of wonderful videos on his YouTube playlists, featuring both instrumental bands and singers from regions including Lublin, Radom, and (in Łódź province) Rawa and Opoczno, as well as Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian traditions within current Polish borders (several of my posts also feature Ukraine and the work of William Noll, such as this).

Recording venues of the Muzyka Odnaleziona project.

We might start with Bieńkowski’s own selection of favourite clips:

Kapela string bands (often family-based) for festive dancing are led by fiddles—with sawing accompaniment, or sometimes a slapped bass resembling the gardon of Gyimes [Plain people of Ireland nod knowingly]. As one moves south, triple-time dances give way to duple metres. The Muzyka Odnaleziona material also does a nifty sideline in bagpipes.

Among the discography in Simon’s article is an impressive anthology of 27 CDs in the Muzyka Źródeł series from Polish radio (here, or here), featuring great musicians such as the fiddler Stanisław Klejnas (1905–88), from the tiny village of Raducz east of Łódź:

He’s also shown in this clip:

From the 1970s, a major inspiration for the renewed interest in Polish folk traditions was Kazimierz Metó (1922-–2008), from Glina south of Łódź. Here he is at home in 1987:

The brothers Jan and Piotr Gaca, based in Przystałowice Małe in the Radom district, are also renowned:

Particularly famed for its distinctive traditions is the Podhale region of the southern Górale highlands, near the border with Slovakia (and west of Przemyśl)—despite the popularity of the main town Zakopane as a tourist resort. In similar vein to Bartók, Kodály, and Janâček, the folk culture of this region inspired WAM composers from Mierczyński and Szymanowski to Górecki, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. [2] 

This style is addictive as that of the string bands of Transylvania at the southern reaches of the Carpathians. Besides the sheer energy of the music, it’s intriguing to become acquainted with the syntax and signposts of the distinctive harmonic progressions; and above them, apparently quite independent, the decorations of the fiddle melodies. Such features are all the more stimulating for seeming rather close to the familiar conventions of WAM (and indeed pop music) while operating quite outside them.

The ever-discerning Nimbus label (e.g. their flamenco recordings) issued two intoxicating CDs in 1996. Recorded a couple of days apart in nearby villages, they evoke a festive conviviality, punctuated by gutsy vocals and dance calls:

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Gienek Wilczek’s Bukowina band —among whose many delights are the funky coda of Oh, Susanna that rounds off the ballad sequence of #5 on this playlist!:

and

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Trebunia family band:

Here’s a 1985 video of Tadeusz Szostak’s kapela—based, like the Trebunia band, in Poronin:

And here’s the playlist of the CD Poland: folk songs and dances (VDE-Gallo, 1993), compiled by Anna Czekanowska (author of many works, including Polish folk music, 1990):

As in China, it’s only by zooming in from region to county to village to family that we can marvel at the depth of local traditions. By analogy with my experience of the Hebei plain and north Shanxi, I can well imagine the wealth of material that detailed fieldwork can afford on the lives of Polish people through all the vicissitudes of modern history.

* * *

Further to Accordion crimes, and among a rich archive of recordings of migrant communities in the USA (such as Italian piffero and ciaramella players in 1963–64!), yet another great Folkways album features early recordings (1927–33) of Polish bands around Chicago and New York; as the liner notes suggest, over this period the rougher folk string-band style (e.g. #4, from the Tatras—where, as we’ve heard, it has persisted) was giving way to a more, um, polished idiom with wider commercial appeal:

Note also the “cheerfully infanticidal” #2. For a companion disc of Ukrainian immigrants, click here.

See also Sound and sovereignty in Ukraine; Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland, and Polish jazz, then and now.


[1] For the early history of documenting Polish folk music, see also Barbara Krader’s section in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993), pp.171–7.

[2] For the music of Podhale, note the works of Timothy Cooley, such as Making music in the Polish Tatras: tourists, ethnographers, and mountain musicians (2005), and this article; see also here, and for the renowned fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850–1926), here. For a hint of the region’s travails during and after World War II, see here and here, as well as The Ratline.

Anna Mahler—Groucho, and sculpture

https://stephenjones.blog/2020/11/18/anna-mahler/Anna Mahler. Source here.

This post leads from the ridiculous to the sublime, so don’t despair.

Courtesy of slippedisc.com, here’s a challenge to the imagination: on 2nd January 1952 the sculptor Anna Mahler, daughter of Gustav and Alma, appeared as a contestant on the Hollywood radio quiz show You bet your life, with Groucho Marx as host. Not just OMG, but

O––––M––––G…

It epitomises the Chinese expression kuxiaobude 哭笑不得, which is somehow more expressive, more versatile, than “not knowing whether to laugh or cry”. Anna tries her luck over the first 11 minutes here:

Undeterred, whether desperate or legally bound (both Anna and Groucho were struggling at the time), she came back for more the very next day for the TV version; thankfully it doesn’t seem to appear online—though in a masochistic kind of way, that too would be hard to resist.

The life of Anna Mahler (1904–88; see also here and here) was just as eventful as that of her mother Alma. Anna’s older sister Maria died in 1907 aged 5; her father in 1911, aged 50; and her half-sister Manon Gropius (the “angel” to whom Berg dedicated his exquisite violin concerto) died at the age of 18 in 1935.

Anna’s first two marriages, to conductor Rupert Koller and composer Ernst Krenek, were short-lived. Having trained in painting, by 1930 she gravitated to sculpture.

After another divorce, she fled the Anschluss in 1938, living in Hampstead and marrying conductor Anatole Fistoulari; their daughter Marina was born in 1943. Following the war she made a home, without her husband, in California, before divorcing yet again in 1956. She returned to London after Alma died in 1964, going on to live in Spoleto from 1969 and taking a fifth husband. She died while visiting Marina in Hampstead in 1988; you can read Ernst Gombrich’s address at her funeral here.

Anna’s father had been fêted in New York, both as conductor and composer, from 1908 to his death in 1911—Groucho, then in his late teens and making his way in vaudeville, could even have attended his concerts. Still, by 1952 he could be forgiven for having but a sketchy awareness of the composer’s towering work—it was some years before the craze for his music that took off in the 60s, often associated with Bernstein and Barbirolli (besides Mahler tag, more links here).

Like Harpo, public persona aside, Groucho was thoughtful and cultured: normal conversation between him and Anna might have been urbane. It’s the superficial format that reduces the encounter.

On the show, although Groucho would already have had background on his guests, he does at least sound suitably impressed to learn of Anna’s parentage and Viennese background, trying out his “old-world charm”. While he doesn’t do his Margaret Dumont routine on her, his badinage almost rescues the occasion: it would have been even more cringeworthy with Yer Average vapid quiz-show host quipping his way through such ritual exchanges. Anna puts on a brave face, right up to Groucho’s final question “What kinda fruit do you use in a peach pie?”

* * *

Just around this time J.D. Salinger was elaborating the precocious, mystically-inclined child characters of the Glass family, whom he portrayed as making long-term appearances on the radio quiz show It’s a wise child from 1927 to 1943. And John Cage‘s 1959 appearances on the Italian TV show Lascia o radoppia (“Double or quit”) were based on his serious sideline as an erudite mycologist.

All this was long before politicians learned that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, submitting to ritual humiliation by trying in vain to Get Down with the Kids (think Anne Widdecombe, George Galloway—actually, no, don’t).

And it almost makes the various Monty Python spoofs (like this, with Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao struggling over questions on football and pop music) seem perfectly plausible.

But actually, why the hell not? The music of Anna’s own father is testimony to the synthesis of high and popular art (cf. Alan Bennett, in coda here; What is serious music?!; Dissolving boundaries; and Strictly north Shanxi Daoist ritual).
[Well, I gave that a trial spin, but I still listen to the show peering through my fingers from behind a sofa.]

* * *

Apart from her stone sculptures, Anna’s work included busts of Berg, Schoenberg, Furtwängler, Klemperer, and Walter, as well as Schoenberg’s death mask.

So as an antidote to You bet your life, we can recover with Anna’s exquisite 1954 film A stone figure (do watch here), made over several months, in which she not only provides the instructive voiceover but also plays Bach for the soundtrack—somehow one feels a deep connection with her father (for his relation with Bach, see here).

“Talking of Michelangelo” (and Groucho knew T.S. Eliot! I rest my case), I remain fond of the apocryphal comment on how to create a sculpture of an elephant: “Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant.”

Mahler 2!!!

Gustav Mahler, 1907.

My Mahler series is quite extensive, but it’s taken me some time to devote a post to the monumental 2nd symphony, premiered in 1895 (wiki here; Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler?, always an engaging guide too: for recordings, see pp.251–3).

I was already deeply immersed in it before I got to eavesdrop on Bernstein’s recording sessions with the LSO at Ely Cathedral in 1974. Sessions can be tiring, doing fiddly little takes over and over again; but one evening there was just time for Bernstein to rouse the orchestra to do one complete, electrifying take of the first movement. Here’s their concert, with Janet Baker!!! and Sheila Armstrong:

The 1st movement Totenfeier alone is an epic.

Totenfeier: culmination of a long buildup from 13.59 (an exhibit in Reaching a crescendo, or not!) that leads to the, um, “recapitulation”. Of the versions here, Rattle gives the most extreme interpretation of the molto pesante, while early versions (Fried, Ormandy, Walter) ignore it.

Eventually the contralto voice of Urlicht emerges magically from the orchestral texture:

O Röschen rot!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Not!
Der Mensch liegt in größter Pein!
Je lieber möcht’ ich im Himmel sein.

Da kam ich auf einen breiten Weg:
Da kam ein Engelein und wollt’ mich abweisen.
Ach nein! Ich ließ mich nicht abweisen!
Ich bin von Gott und will wieder zu Gott!
Der liebe Gott wird mir ein Lichtchen geben,
wird leuchten mir bis in das ewig selig Leben!

It’s interrupted by the march of the dead, which falls away to the hushed choral entry of Aufersteh’n, culminating in the astounding, blazing ending.

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n wirst du,
mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh’!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
will der dich rief dir geben!

Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!

Mahler 2 finale chorus 3

Lest I run out of superlatives, I’ll refrain from eulogizing all the fine detail, on condition that you set aside everything else and immerse yourself totally in the symphony.

Like listening to rāg Yaman, we can’t possibly digest all these versions at once—but how amazing to have such great recordings just a click away. Click here for Claudio Abbado and the remarkable Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with Anna Larsson and Eteri Gvazava, in 2003.

Klaus Tennstedt and the LPO, with Jard van Nes and Yvonne Kenny, live in 1989:

S-S-Simon Rattle and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (after their classic 1987 recording) live in 1998, with Anne Sofie von Otter!!! and Hillevi Martinpelto:

Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, with Anna Larssen and Miah Persson, at the Proms in 2011:

Going back before the “rediscovery” of Mahler, early recordings like those of Oskar Fried (1924) and Eugene Ormandy (1935) are less polished but still rewarding for their evocative patina. Here’s Bruno Walter and the (male) Vienna Phil with Rosette Anda and Maria Cebotari in 1948:

All we lack is a film of Mahler himself conducting! Imagine…

Any live performance is overwhelming, but the experience is all the more intense with conductors communicating directly without the barrier of a score—returning to S-Simon, don’t miss his performance at the 2022 Proms.

And then, on to all the other symphonies (links also under The art of conducting).