Toru 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]


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.

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.


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 here’s the complete work, played by various organists, as at the premiere:

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 great 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 more, see Mahler tag, and under Conducting: a roundup.


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, a childlike 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* 
Ermuntern die Sinnen,
Daß alles für Freuden erwacht.

non angli sed angeli!!!

Note that hushed last verse, in E major—like that vision in the slow movement.

* * *

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 The 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.]


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, here’s a live performance in February 1944 (cf. the same team’s recording in May 1945), 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):

—as well as some brief rehearsal footage of the end of the first movement with the Concertgebouw in 1946:

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 Communism 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 (in Polish; for perceptive interviews with him in English, 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!:


  • 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.

See also 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.

Anna Mahler—Groucho, and sculpture

Anna Mahler. Source here.

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

Courtesy of, 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


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, 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 somehow after all this time I still haven’t managed 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 rag Yaman, we can’t possibly digest all these versions at once—but how amazing to have such great recordings just a click away. Here’s Abbado and the remarkable Lucerne Festival Orchestra, with Anna Larsson and Eteri Gvazava, in 2003:

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

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

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…

The experience is all the more intense with conductors communicating directly without the barrier of a score. Actually, any live performance is overwhelming.

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

Méfiez-vous des blancs

I’ve featured the music of Ravel a lot on this blog (starting here), but the Black Lives Matter movement reminds me to get to know his Chansons madécasses (1925–26).

These three songs to lyrics by Évariste de Parny (1753–1814), with flute, cello, and piano, [1] came soon after the premiere of the enchanted L’enfant et les sortilèges—and just as the Rif war in Morocco was coming to a head.

I’ve broached the themes of exoticism and colonialism in posts on Berlioz and Mahler. For Ravel, Shéhérazade, as well as his taste for jazz, are also relevant.

But the style of the Chansons madécasses is far from Ravel’s customary sensuality. Even the outer movements—the first an ode to a casual sexual encounter, the third a languid dream of the master with his maids—are uncompromising, unsettling.


Most disturbing is the second song Méfiez-vous des blancs, with the false promises of the white invaders, their priests who “wanted to give us a God whom we didn’t know”, and carnage. Though the invaders are expelled, after the initial Aoua! screams of alarm, the final cries are subdued.

For the first recording in 1932 the singer was Madeleine Gray, with Ravel apparently supervising rather than playing piano:

Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove! L’’oiseau nocturne a commencé ses cris, la pleine lune brille sur ma tête, et la rosée naissante humecte mes cheveux. Voici l’’heure; qui peut t’’arrête, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Le lit de feuilles est préparée de fleurs et d’’herbes odoriférent; il est digne de tes charmes, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Elle vient. J’’ai reconnu la respiration précipité que donne une marche rapide; j’’entends le froissement de la pagne qui l’’enveloppe; c’’est elle, c’’est Nahandove, la belle Nahandove!

Ô reprends haleine, ma jeune amie; repose-toi sur mes genoux. Que ton regard est enchanteur! Que le mouvement de ton sein est vif et délicieux sous la main qui le presse! Tu souris, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Tes baisers pénètrent jusqu’’à l’’âme; tes caresses brûlent tous mes sens: arrête, ou je vais mourir. Meurt-on de volupté, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Le plaisir passe comme un éclair. Ta douce haleine s’’affaiblit, tes yeux humides se referment, ta tête se penche mollement, et tes transports s’éignent dans la languer. Jamais tu ne fût si belle, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Tu pars, et je vais languir dans les regrets et les désirs. Je languirai jusqu’’au soir. Tu reviendras ce soir, Nahandove, ô belle Nahandove!

Méfiez-vous des blancs
Aoua! Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage. Du temps de nos pères, des blancs descendirent dans cette île. On leur dit: Voilà des terres, que vos femmes les cultivent; soyez justes, soyez bons, et devenez nos frères.

Les blancs promirent, et cependant ils faisoient des retranchemens. Un fort menaçant s’’éleva; le tonnerre fut renfermé dans des bouches d’’airain; leur prêtres voulurent nous donner un Dieu que nous ne connaissons pas; ils parlèrent enfin d’’obéissance et d’’esclavage. Plutôt la mort! Le carnage fut long et terrible; mais malgré la foudre qu’’ils vomissoient et qui ecraisoit des armées entières, ils furent tous exterminés. Aoua! Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage.

Nous avons vu de nouveaux tyrans, plus forts et plus nombreux, planter leur pavillon sur le rivage. Le ciel a combattu pour nous. Il a fait tomber sur eux les pluis, les tempêtes et les vents empoisonnés. Ils ne sont plus, et nous vivons, et nous vivons libre. Aoua! Aoua! Méfiez-vous des blancs, habitants du rivage.

Il est doux de se coucher
Il est doux de se coucher, durant la chaleur, sous un arbre touffu, et d’’attendre que le vent du soir amène la fraîcheur.

Femmes, approchez. Tandis que je me repose ici sous un arbre touffu, occupez mon oreille par vos accens prolongés. Répétez la chanson de la jeune fille, lorsque ses doigts tressent la natte, or lorsqu’’assise auprès du riz, elle chasse les oiseux avides.

Le chant plaît à mon âme. La danse est pour moi presque aussi douce qu’’un baiser. Que vos pas soient lent; qu’’ils imitent les attitudes du plaisir et l’’abandon de la volupté.

Le vent du soir se lève; la lune commence à briller au travers des arbres de la montagne. Allez, et préparez le repas.

Among more recent renditions, here’s Magdelena Kožená (cf. her incomparable Ich bin der Welt abhanden bekommen):

[1] See e.g. Richard S. James, “Ravel’s ‘Chansons madécasses’: ethnic fantasy or ethnic borrowing?”, Musical quarterly 74.3 (1990), and Roger Nichols, Ravel (2011), pp.271–80.

Bach: O ewiges feuer


Oswald Onghers, Pfingstwunder, 1701.

While delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean museNative American ceremonies, punk, the Uyghur muqam, Polish jazz, and so on and on—the Bach cantatas are an inexhaustible treasury (see under A Bach retrospective).

The blessed congregation of the Nikolaikirche in Leipzig heard O ewiges feuer on Pentacost Sunday in 1727. Here’s John Eliot Gardiner with a recording just before the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000:

One of the most exhilarating experiences, both to play and to listen to, is the final chorus (from 14.46), with joyous violins punctuated by trumpets and drums (cf. the 3rd orchestral suite).

Ewiges feuer

Friede über Israel                                     Peace upon Israel
Dankt den höchsten Wunderhänden,       Give thanks to the exalted wondrous hands,
Dankt, Gott hat an euch gedacht.              give thanks, God has been mindful of you.
Ja, sein Segen wirkt mit Macht,                 Yea, His blessing is mighty in effect,
Friede über Israel,                                        in sending peace upon Israel,
Friede über euch zu senden.                       and peace upon you.

Better than ever: more Bach

Bach Sarabande

Another balm to lockdown ennui (aka My Normal Life):

I don’t wanna get into specifics“, so I won’t divulge how long it is since I took out my trusty violin—suffice it to refer you to Inspector Clouseau and “It was in tune when I bought it” (see also “It doesn’t make any difference if your strings are in tune!“). But “What I can tell you is this”:

First I warm up by seeing how much I can still recall of the movements of Bach cello suites that I learned some years ago—a remarkable amount, as it turns out (speaking as someone who doesn’t even know what day of the week it is at the moment). Then I devoutly set about learning the intense Sarabande from Bach’s 5th cello suite, inspired as I am by the great Steven Isserlis (for his rendition of the complete suite, click here; the Sarabande from 13.12).

Short as it looks on the page, this should be a manageable task, though here the usual challenge of transposing from cello to violin—the preliminary spadework—is further complicated both by its highly chromatic melodic lines and by the score, with its scordatura, the E string tuned down to D. The ear is the best guide: once the piece is in my heart and under my fingers, I can dispense with the notation (as one does). Playing it on the modern violin (I don’t quite know why), I soon adopt higher, more veiled positions; so in the end, ironically, I don’t require the top string at all.

Steven imagines the 5th suite as representing the Crucifixion—before the Resurrection of the 6th suite. As he writes:

The tragic atmosphere of the suite reaches its emotional peak in the desolate loneliness of the famous Sarabande. What an extraordinary movement this is: no discernible melody as such, no particular rhythmic interest, no obvious dynamic changes, no chords*—and yet, one of the most powerful pieces of music ever composed.

To irritate Tweety McTangerine (cf. They come over ‘ere…), I note that the Sarabande was Latin in origin, with Arab influences; like many dances, it was once considered “so loose in its words and so ugly in its motions that it is enough to excite bad emotions in even very decent people”. This one may seem remote from its dance ancestry (it’s hardly a track to get the kids onto the dance floor), but I find myself trying to convey a stately balletic rhythm alongside the anguish.

And now even the other movements aren’t safe: next, the Allemande. This beats household chores and gardening any day.

While I’d love to hear the Sarabande on the Uyghur satar (cf. the exquisite muqaddime here), I’m also rising to the challenge of making it work on the ethereal Chinese erhu, like the Feuchtwang variations and the Allemande for flute. This requires yet more vertiginous positions. “They said it couldn’t be done—and they were right!”

Chiswick House Prices Take Another Tumble

For some real, nay astounding, erhu playing, click here.


* Um, OK: in WAM such monophonic melodies, even an extremely tortuous one like this, always spell out a harmonic structure horizontally, but hey.

Modulation: Schubert and Coltrane

I used to love hearing the late great Hugh Maguire leading the Allegri quartet in the Quartettsatz of Schubert. It’s the first movement of an unfinished quartet—and if you ask me (as you don’t), it deserves to be a lot better known than the symphony (for which, see Alan Bennett, and the classic Kronenburg ad).

Anyway, I digress, as usual. You can (or could) hear the Chilingirian quartet playing it in Classic quartets at the BBCThis fine performance by the Jasper quartet, from 2009, seems prophetic in its isolation:

On and off, the beguiling little ppp sequence from 2.06 has been an earworm for me over fifty years. Schubert manages to restrain himself (he may just have wanted to get down the pub, as in the Kronenburg ad), but in my head I often find myself taking the sequence on and on [Weirdo—Ed.], imagining playing it on the violin (though it’s just as fun in the lower parts)—it only takes six phases to get back where you started. But OK, probably just as well that Schubert resisted the temptation… 

Giant steps

In a typical segue, I recommend playing this game with pop songs too, like the “I love you baby” refrain of Can’t take my eyes off you (which, like Schubert, knows when to stop). And since jazzers are the True Masters of harmony, here’s Coltrane‘s Giant steps (fast-moving chord sequences shown to your left; for analysis, see e.g. here):

And then there’s the enchanting The windmills of your mind, crafted by varying a single motif.

Of course (my usual reminder!), efficacity doesn’t depend on complexity; in art, folk, and popular genres, pieces can communicate without harmony or modulation…

More Schubert here!

Some pupils of Nadia Boulanger—real and alleged

Boulanger with Stravinsky

With Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York“), 1937.

Just in time before it was deleted, I viewed a suggestive wiki page listing well over two hundred distinguished pupils of the great pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979; cf. my post on her sister Lili). The wiki editors may have decided it would be shorter to compile a list of musicians who didn’t study with her.

Sure, one might suspect that some of them just popped in for a pot of tea and a macaroon, à la Alan Bennett. The allure of Paris may have played a certain role in Mademoiselle’s popularity—dare I surmise that her wisdom might not have been in quite such demand had she been based in Scunthorpe.

Prominent in the populous Boulangerie were renowned WAM composers and performers—such as Walter Piston, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Philip Glass (cf. Ned Rorem, “Am I the only living expatriate American composer who never studied with Nadia Boulanger?”); Darius Milhaud, Jean Françaix; Thea Musgrave, Lennox Berkeley; Shanghai composer Ding Shande; [1] Igor Markevitch, Dinu Lipatti, Idil Biret, Joseph Horovitz, Daniel Barenboim, Clifford Curzon, Kenneth Gilbert, John Kirkpatrick, Kathleen Ferrier…

As would be the case later (see here, under “Performance practice”), new composition and early music went hand in hand. Boulanger’s performances of Monteverdi and Bach were legendary—At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular. In the later HIP scene, she was a formative influence on performers such as John Eliot Gardiner and Robert Levin.

I like this story from Philip Glass’s memoirs:

After proffering his 20-page manuscript, Mademoiselle (as she was known) placed it on the piano’s music rack and cast her eyes over the densely written pages. At a certain point she paused, drew breath and enquired after his health.

“Not sick, no headache, no problems at home?”

“No, Mlle Boulanger, I am really fine.”

“Would you like to see a physician or a psychiatrist? It can be arranged very confidentially.”

“No, Mlle Boulanger.”

She wheeled her chair around and screamed “Then how do you explain this?”

She had found “hidden fifths” between an alto and bass part—a heinous crime, if ever there were one. After upbraiding him for his slackness and lack of commitment he was dismissed and the lesson was over.

Boulanger with Piazzolla 1955

With Astor Piazzolla, 1955.

Intriguing too are those names outside the world of WAM, notably jazzers—Donald Byrd, Quincy Jones, Astor Piazzolla, Michel Legrand, and so on. Most poignantly, Noor Inayat Khan and her siblings—on whom, do please read this moving post.

Here’s a precious 1977 film by Bruno Monsaingeon (cf. his films on Rozhdestvensky), showing evocative vignettes from her salon:

* * *

Descending into fantasy, I only began to wonder about some of these names when I switched on Football focus to hear Wayne Rooney claiming to be a disciple:

Emm… yeah Gary, me legendary hunger for the ball round the edge of the box—that’s all down to Mademoiselle, like… She taught me everything I know about Renaissance polyphony—[2] mind you, I taught ‘er everything she knows about dribbling, fair dos like. [3]

Perhaps it goes back to the popularity of a CV-writing manual that states “most importantly, always claim to be a pupil of Nadia Boulanger”.

This trend has also influenced historians, such as recent biographers of Genghis Khan (“under her tutelage, he became almost docile”) and Jane Austen—citing a recently-discovered early draft of Pride and Prejudice:

But I was not to be deterred by Mademoiselle’s stern rebukes pertaining to the supposed clumsiness of my chordal voicing on the pianoforte.

(Seriously though folks, do read this interesting article on music and class in Austen’s works).

YAY! Wayne Rooney, Genghis Khan, and Jane Austen—now there’s another great guest-list for a fantasy dinner-party. For some unlikely reviews of my own ouevre, click here.

Left, 1910; right, 1925.

[1] Meanwhile, other students were beating a path to the door of Olivier Messiaen, including the great Chinese composer Chen Qigang.

[2] See his little-known thesis: Wayne Mark Rooney, The art of counterpoint in the late Masses of Josquin des Prez, with special reference to penalty-taking, like (PhD, Université Paris-Sorbonne/Birkenhead Polytechnic, nd).
Note also the (real!) Improvisation for Michael Owen on the qin zither.

[3] Cf. the Harry and Paul spoof interview with S-Simon Rattle, introducing a fascinating (and otherwise earnest) post on Conducting from memory.

A hard day’s night

Following my tributes to Sgt Pepper and Abbey road, the earlier work of the Beatles deserves celebrating too (cf. Yesterday…). For an introduction to the series, see here.

Setting aside my personal attachment to the soundtrack of my youth, their 1964 LP A hard day’s night remains moving. Here it is as a playlist:

Again, Wilfred Mellers (Twilight of the Gods) and Alan W. Pollack (online) make perceptive guides for those who care to supplement sensuous experience with discursive analysis. Both writers combine technical analysis with thoughtful comments on the Beatles’ emotional world. For all the sophistication of the Beatles’ later albums, the equivocal roles of innocence and experience are clear in their early years too.

The album—like the film—opens with the most recognisable opening chord in all the world’s music! It’s been much analysed—e.g. wiki, and here’s Alan W. Pollack:

I’ve seen better people than myself argue (and in public, no less) about the exact guitar voicing of this chord and I’ll stay out of that question for now (what a cop-out, Alan!), and merely state that its sonority is akin to a superimposition of the chords of D minor, F major, and G major; i.e. it contains the notes D, F, A, C, and G — to my ears, only the B is missing. Even if you don’t know a thing about harmony or musical dictation, you can at least hear the G as a suspended fourth over the D on the bottom. Hullaballoo aside, this chord functions as a surrogate dominant (i.e. V) with respect to the chord on G which begins the first verse.

As often, it’s the ballads that continue to entrance, such as

  • If I fell in love with you, tinged with pain: after the complex chromatic intro, harmonic variety continues to decorate the melody, like the surprise of the 9th chord in the second verse at “Don’t hurt my pride like her“. With the elliptical, ambiguous word play of the lyrics, Pollack observes:

beneath the mere cleverness of it all, what makes this song so potent is the desperate vulnerability it manifests; a veritable obsession with the subjunctive “iffy-ness” of love, described as a state in which people might run and hide and pride be hurt. For me though, the greatest ambiguity of all here is in the tension between the hero’s begging for love’s being requited on the one hand, while at the same time holding back from freely offering it for fear of being rejected. Is this ingenuous realism, such a lot of chutzpah, or likely a bit of both?

  • And I love her, with characteristic ambiguity between major and minor, and the half-step modulation for the guitar break. Pollack notes the similar tonal design of the opening song of Schumann’s Dichterliebe.
  • Things we said today—for Mellers, their most beautiful and deep song up to this point. Again it’s enriched by subtle harmonic language.

The rhythm is grave, the percussion almost minatory, the vocal tessitura restricted, while the harmony oscillates between triads of G minor and D minor. The flavour is incantatory, even liturgical, a moment outside Time. The second strain hints at the possibility of loss, with a weeping chromatic descent in triplet rhythm, and with rapid but dreamy tonal movement flowing from B♭ by way of a rich dominant 9th to E♭: the subdominant triad of which then serves as a kind of Neapolitan cadence drooping back (without the linking dominant) to the grave pentatonic G minor. […]

Whether or not you’re aware of such harmonic language, it registers with the listener.

The film is also wonderful. And so, by way of Rubber soul and Revolver, to the genius of Sgt Pepper, The white album, and Abbey road. Incredible…

* * *

Meanwhile, in the great tradition of English satire, here’s the priceless narration of the great Peter Sellers reciting the lyrics of the title song in the Shakespearean style of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III:

Cf. Balham—gateway to the south, Alan Bennett’s Sermon, and Marty Feldman’s chanson to the HP sauce label. And don’t miss Cunk on Shakespeare!

The spiritual path of John Coltrane

Coltrane 3

Having written about various jazz greats—Billie Holiday, Chet Baker (here and here), Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and so on (see also jazz tag)—my recent post on Charles Mingus reminded me to explore further the genius of

John Coltrane (1926–67)

Coltrane 2

Like many jazzers, he was dedicated to practice, studying technique and harmony, disciplined and constantly exploring. And while he too went through a heroin phase (managing to get clean in 1957), he seems pure, gentle, mature, without anger—unlike other greats such as Bird, Miles, and Mingus.

On film, Chasing Trane (John Scheinfeld, 2016) makes a good introduction—here’s a trailer:

as well as Ken Burns’s film Jazz (with the book). Also worth watching is the BBC documentary Saint John Coltrane (Alan Yentob, 2004). And among a wealth of biographies, I’ve been re-reading J.C. Thomas, Chasing the trane: the music and mystique of John Coltrane (1975). More importantly, I’ve been listening attentively.

Like so many others, Trane was inspired by Charlie Parker: hearing him for the first time in 1945, “it hit me right between the eyes”. Other major early influences were Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young; and he had much in common with Sonny Rollins.

Coltrane 1

Trane with Dizzy.

Before going on to lead his own bands, Trane worked with Dizzy from 1949, and with Miles from 1955. That year he married Juanita Naima Grubbs, who was the inspiration for his intimate ballad Naima, that he often played—such as on Giant steps (1959):

Naima may have become reified for us, but by contrast, here’s an extended, wild version from Live at the Village Vanguard again! (1966—with his second wife Alice on piano):

Miles Davis’s autobiography—one of the great works in the genre—has many insights on his protégé (indeed, on the whole scene). From 1955 Miles brought out Trane’s creativity, but

after he moved to New York his habit got worse, and real quick, too. I didn’t have no moral thing about Trane and all of them shooting heroin, because I had gone through that, and I knew that it was a sickness that was hard to get rid of. So I didn’t give them no grief about doing it. What I did start to get on them about was coming late and nodding up on the bandstand; I told them I couldn’t tolerate that. […]

If it had been some other player I would have fired him again after the first couple of times. But I loved Trane, I really did, although we never did hang out too much like Philly Joe and I did. Trane was a beautiful person, a really sweet kind of guy, spiritual, all of that. So you really couldn’t help loving him and caring about him, too.

Getting sacked by Miles spurred Trane to get clean after four years of addiction. As he said in the notes to A love supreme:

During the year 1957 I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.

From 1957 he also worked with Monk, another seminal influence.

Working with Monk brought me close to a musical architect of the highest order. I felt I learned from him in every way—sensually, theoretically, technically. I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would show me the answers by playing them on the piano. He gave me complete freedom in my playing, and no-one ever did that before.

And McCoy Tyner noted:

I once saw John with Monk, and I think he learned an incredible amount of harmonic background from him. Monk opened him up to the point where he was able to compose complex tunes like Giant Steps. I learned a lot myself just by listening to Monk play. His concept of space alone was one of the most important things he taught Coltrane; when to lay out and let someone else fill up that space, or just leave the space open. I think John was already going in that direction, but working with Monk helped him reach his goal that much faster.

Trane was ever studious. Among the books of exercises that he consulted daily was the Thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns by Nicolas Slonimsky—whose A lexicon of musical invective is a hilarious reminder of the constant shock of the new (see here, including a documentary on his life). Meanwhile, like many jazzers, Trane listened to Debussy, Ravel, Bartók, Stravinsky. And he constantly sought out saxes and mouthpieces that would better suit his sound ideal.

In 1958 Trane led his own band for Blue train, with Lee Morgan on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Kenny Drew on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums—the bland opening chorus soon blown away:

Coltrane Miles Kind of Blue

After Miles took him back, he took part in the immortal Kind of blue (1959, virtually unrehearsed!!!)—along with Bill Evans (for the exquisite Ravelian Blue in green, see here), Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb on drums:

Meanwhile Trane was recording Giant steps (1959; see also here). On the album My favorite things (1960) they transform the title song “into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance” (for the live 1965 version, see here). And then came Live at the Village Vanguard (1962),

including Chasin’ the trane and Softly as in a morning sunrise (Paul Berliner analyses a version of the latter in his brilliant Thinking in jazz, pp.689–708).

Like Miles, Trane went on to explore in radical directions. But their paths were very different: while Miles was shrewd alongside his own thirst for innovation, Trane was hardly concerned about commercial potential. The last time they worked together was on a tour of England in March 1960—just as I was learning violin and Chinese villagers were starving… In 1961 Trane led his own quintet on a tour of Europe.

In 1963 he played Alabama in response to the KKK church bombing—reminiscent of an Indian alap:

This playlist has many other fabulous tracks:

Apart from the great horn and bass and piano players that Trane worked with, the drive of drummers—notably Philly Joe Jones, and later Elvin Jones—was crucially important to him.

After parting with Naima, in 1963 he married Alice McLeod, who played piano in his later bands, and herself went on to develop her own style of spiritual jazz. They had three sons together—including Ravi (named after Ravi Shankar), who himself became a fine sax player.

A love supreme
and the late albums
Trane had been drawn to Eastern mysticism (whatever that is) ever since working with tenor player Yusef Lateef in Dizzy’s band in 1949. It was Lateef who directed him to Krishnamurti, and Hazrat Inayat Khan‘s Sufi treatise on the mysticism of sound.

Gradually, by way of the Cool and his 1957 epiphany, he felt able to move away from the frantic vibe of bebop in search of a deeper spirituality.

The towering result of his epiphany was A love supreme (1964), with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums:

In Psalm, the whole of the final section (from 25.59) again reminds me of an alap.

That may well be as far as many people want to follow him. Rather like late Beethoven (just a reminder: I’m not supporting the admission of jazz to the elite club—such genres take their place alongside all human musicking!), as Trane’s quest became more mystical, his style became more extreme; with its squawks, honks and howls, it’s far from the fabled Oriental Tranquillity.

Like many others at the time, Trane was drawn to Indian philosophy and (through the influence of Yusuf Lateef) music (under the Indian tag, note this post); in 1961 he began corresponding with Ravi Shankar. As Shankar recalled after their first meeting in 1965:

Meeting John was a great surprise. Most jazz musicians I have met were not interested in anything outside of their own musical world, but here was a humble and self-effacing man with an interest in other people and their cultures like few I have ever met.

But much as he admired Trane, Shankar found his music perplexing, too full of turmoil.

As he worked with Pharaoh Sanders, Trane’s style began to resemble the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. While developing new melodic styles along with Eric Dolphy and Sun Ra’s saxman John Gilmore, he became more immersed in Sufism, the Kabbala, and the polyrhythms of African drumming, influenced by Nigerian percussionist Olatunji; from 1965 he added Rashied Ali to his line-up on drums. (Again, Miles is worth reading on free jazz, and everything…)

As the early miniaturist bebop style receded, Trane gravitated to longer and longer improvisations. Even in his earlier days with Miles, as the latter questioned the increasing length of his solos, when Trane responded, “I don’t know how to stop”, Miles came back with “Try taking the fucking horn out of your mouth.” He wasn’t into Trane’s late style, finding it monotonous. Indeed, maybe it doesn’t always work: as Bill Russo commented,

Coltrane lacks the spirit of the idiom he attempts. He gets stuck, repeating figurations again and again, as if such repetition could somehow improve what little the first two or three times they occur. It doesn’t, obviously.

Anyway, Trane’s late work rewards attention. Here are some examples—Om (recorded 1965):

Ascension (1966) is exhilarating, even if I find the sheet of big-band sound more engaging than the solos that emerge from them:

Meditations (1966) (as a playlist):

On a gruelling tour of Japan in 1966, when he was already terminally ill, he played Peace on earth:

Expression (1967):

Trane’s early death may make such albums seem like a postscript, but tempting as it is to bask in the “classic” albums like Blue train, Kind of blue, and A love supreme, just imagine where he would have gone had he lived longer. If only I had been able to share all these creations with Natasha.

As ever, Miles has perceptive comments (p.384):

One of the reasons I like playing with a lot of young musicians today is because I find that a lot of old jazz musicians are lazy motherfuckers, resisting change and holding on to the old ways because they are too lazy to try something different. They listen to the critics, who tell them to stay where they are because that’s what they like. The critics are lazy, too. They don’t want to try to understand music that’s different. The old musicians stay where they are and become like museum pieces under glass, safe, easy to understand, playing that tired old shit again and again. Then they run around talking about electronic instruments and electronic musical voicing fucking up the music and the tradition. Well, I’m not like that and neither was Bird or Trane or Sonny Rollins or Duke or anybody who wanted to keep on creating. Bebop was about change, about evolution. It wasn’t about standing still and becoming safe. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Living is an adventure and a challenge.

I needn’t burden you here with yet another lament about how limited our outlets for creativity are in WAM. But awed as I am by the creativity of jazzers generally, I’m all the more astounded by Coltrane—and the horn players, pianists, bass players, and drummers who worked with him. It takes me back to Berliner’s Thinking in jazz to try and understand in more depth what they’re all doing.

John Coltrane died at 40, yet another shooting star in the jazz world of the time, with its high rate of early deaths—such as Bird (34), Billie (44), Fats Navarro (26), Clifford Brown (25), Lee Morgan (33), Eric Dolphy (36). Chinese shawm players (comparable in some ways to jazzers: see also Deviating from behavioural norms) also often died early. Elsewhere, Mozart died at 36, Schubert at 31, and Mahler was only 50; Amy Winehouse only 27.

Consecrating the sacred space


Votive chapel of the New Cathedral, Linz.

Further to Buildings and music, and with Bruckner 7 featuring in my posts on Trauma: music, art, and objects and Celibidache, I recall Bruckner’s wonderful sacred a cappella motet Locus iste, composed in 1869 for the dedication ceremony of the votive chapel of the New Cathedral, Linz.

It made an impression on me while singing it in my school choir in the 1960s, but somehow all these decades later, hardly having heard it since, I still remember every note.

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inaestimabile sacramentum,
irreprehensibilis est.

Here’s Harry Christophers with the Sixteen, a century after the first recording in 1907:

John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi choir is slower and more ponderous:

* * *

Short and simple as Locus iste is (cf. The art of the miniature), even the wiki page gives a substantial analysis. Discursive analysis is so basic to the whole fabric of WAM, enshrined in academies, programme notes, and so on (see e.g. Heartland excursions); but it’s tangential to world and pop music—where it is no less (and no more) valid, but audiences in general feel less need, if any, to use it to valorise their direct experience (for world music, see Analysing world music, and Dream songs; for pop, see e.g. Abbey road; and for the schism between discursive and experiential approaches to Chinese religion, see Chau on “doing religion” in China).

So we can take or leave analysis of the hymns of the Li family Daoists (such as my Daoist priests of the Li family, ch.14—see e.g. here; or you may prefer just to watch my film), or I say a little prayer.

A cappella, harmonic, choral singing can be exquisite (e.g. Barber and Bach here). By contrast, choral singing in other cultures is usually monophonic, or heterophonic; and in his Cantometrics project Alan Lomax suggests cultural features of societies that may lead to a mellifluous or harsh timbre (among instances of the latter, see e.g. flamenco).

While Western culture also has its ceremonial fanfares, in Chinese ritual the consecration of temples and their statues is an exuberant and noisy affair. As Daoists perform the Opening to the Light (kaiguang 開光) ritual, the soundscape is filled with shawms and percussion “rousing the hall” (naoting 鬧廳). Here’s an instance from Malaysia, performed by emigrants from Yongchun in Fujian (cf.  Fujian, 1961 and onwards) before an elaborate altar:






Mingus cover

Charles Mingus (1922–79; see website, and wiki) was not only a great bass player (and here’s a jazz bass joke), but also (like Bach) an inspirational composer and bandleader—perhaps the least celebrated of the “Three M’s”: Miles, Monk, and Mingus.

Jazz biographies rarely stint on the sensational, and autobiography can never be “objective”. Deep in a dream, a life of Chet Baker, is mainly a chronicle of his constant sordid search for fixes; by extension, Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! is a work of art. Miles Davis’s autobiography, though far from comfortable, is relatively sober, evoking his constant musical explorations alongside the gritty details of the lifestyle.

But Mingus’s own take on his life—mainly on his first three decades—is highly novelistic, impressionistic, fantastical. Probably what I need is

  • Brian Priestley, Mingus: a critical biography (1984), or
  • Gene Santoro, Myself when I am real: the life and music of Charles Mingus (1994).

Instead, I’ve been reading his curious quasi-autobiography

  • Beneath the underdog (1971/1995/2005), written in the early 60s and mercifully abbreviated for publication—well reviewed here.

While Mingus offers few details of his musical journey, the book does at least expose the psychic ravages caused by racism. The opening sets the tone, with the first of sessions with his psychologist, splitting his childhood personality into three. Throughout he refers to himself in the third person as “my boy”.

Punctuating the tortured self-analysis and catalogue of degrading sexual encounters are occasional vignettes such as his early experience of learning the cello without notation. His itinerant teacher

would teach anyone how to play anything even looking like a musical instrument that poor folks might beg or buy second-hand or on the instalment plan. Maybe he didn’t even admit to himself that he cheated his pupils but the truth was he took no time to give the fundamental principles of a good musical education [sic!]. His short weekly sessions had to result in satisfying sounds that proved to parents their children were really learning something in a status-building money-making field. So Mr Arson by-passed the essentials that even the most talented child must master if he is ever going to learn to read music well, and the parents, as usual, were paying for something their children were not getting.

Mr Arson saw at once Charles could sing the sounds he saw on paper. Without bothering to name the notes, he showed him where to put his fingers on the cello to make that sound. It was as if a bright child who could easily and rapidly pronounce syllables was never taught how syllables fit into words and words in syntax. I’m sure Mr Arson hadn’t any idea his shorthand method would turn out to be great for jazz improvisation, where the musician listens to the sounds he’s producing rather than making an intellectual transference from the score paper to the fingering process. Using simple scales and familiar tunes, Mr Arson would count as he bowed his muted, gypsy-sounding violin with its resin-caked surface and Charles would follow as best he could by ear, knowing only how it sounded and having no conception of the technical processes he should have been learning at that time.

He goes on to play in the LA Junior Phil, where he meets the angelic Lee-Marie. Through their teenage years it was a rather chaste relationship; later she came to embody his Madonna–whore complex.

Still in his teens, Mingus emerges from being bullied while becoming ever more disturbed by racism, and also discovers mysticism. He moves onto bass:

Not even knowing the names of the strings or how to tune his instrument, Charles began practicing hour after hour standing by the RCA Victor console radio in the front room and after a few weeks he began to get the feel of it.

He studies with Red Callender, learns piano with Lloyd Reese, and begins getting gigs. A constant parade of demeaning sexual encounters is graphically described in passages of explicit porn worthy of the Bad Sex Award. In a rare interlude, while working with Bird and Miles he discusses the world of sax mouthpieces with Lucky Thompson (cf. Keef’s rhapsody on open-string guitar tuning):

“Let’s catch a smoke outside, Mingus.”

“I wonder if Buddy still thinks Merle Johnson mouthpieces give a bigger sound. Some teacher’s been telling him that coloured cats don’t get big sounds with open lay mouthpieces.”

“Haw haw, Mingus! It takes effort is what they mean. Work. They don’t like to sweat. The white man ain’t satisfied till they take all the human element out. Like Bird—they made it this far and they give him horns with soft action. He says, “What for? Too late.” He likes working. He plays an old Conn with a number thirty open lay mouthpiece. I remember some kid telling Bird he heard Negroes used trick mouthpieces to make things easier. Bird reached in his case and said, “Here, try this Berg Larsen, son.” The kid put it on his horn and blew. Wheee! Nothing came out but air. He turned red and blue in the face. Not a sound came forth. Bird said, “Give it here, let’s see what’s wrong with it. Oh, the reed’s too soft.” He took out a fifty-cent piece and held the reed to it and burned around it with a cigarette lighter—burned it down almost to the stem. The he tries it out. “Plays beautiful,” Bird said. “Still a little soft but it will do.” If that kid had tried to blow a reed that stiff he’d passed out or died before he got it to play. You know who that was? A kid named Lee Konitz [R.I.P.]. Ask him when you meet him if you ever get to New York…

In 1947, working for the Lionel Hampton band, Mingus meets Fats Navarro, whose early death in 1950 deprived him of a soulmate.

Meanwhile, like Miles, he becomes a more or less inadvertent pimp, with a little help from Billie Holiday. Meeting up again with the erstwhile angelic Lee-Marie, he recruits her to his harem. Still his encounters with Bird, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge take a back seat to all the relentless balling.

Mingus finds a sympathetic friend in Nat Hentoff, “one of the few white guys you could really talk to in your life”. He checks himself into the psychiatric facility Bellevue, begging the guard to let him in. While there he digs a radio broadcast of the Juilliard quartet playing Bartók. When it turns out to be even harder to get out than in, he turns to Hentoff rather than his psychologist to help him get discharged.

Here’s Lock ‘em up (Hellview of Bellevue, 1960):

After another session with his psychologist, the book ends with Mingus going all mystical on Fats Navarro. But his most creative years were yet to come.

Now here’s a thing:

When Dizzy Gillespie ran his spoof presidential campaign in the early 60s, he nominated Duke Ellington for Secretary of State, Miles Davis for head of the CIA, Max Roach for Minister of Defence, Malcolm X for Attorney General, and Mingus for Minister of Peace.

If only the current lineup were so well qualified…

* * *

After such a pitiless exposé of Mingus’s troubled psyche, it comes as a relief to retreat to the amazing freedom and energy of his music—here’s a fabulous playlist, starting with the extraordinary Moanin’ (1959):

Hog callin’ blues (1962), starring Roland Kirk, is Something Else too:

Going back, here’s his legendary 1953 Massey Hall gig with Bird, Dizzy, Max Roach, and Bud Powell:

Miles Davis’s own autobiography always has vivid and illuminating comments (p.83):

After Bird went off the scene, I would rehearse with Mingus a lot. He wrote tunes that Lucky and him and me would rehearse. Mingus didn’t give a fuck about what kind of ensemble it was; he just wanted to hear his shit played all the time. I used to argue with him about using all those abrupt changes in the chords in his tunes.

“Mingus, you so fucking lazy, man, that you won’t modulate. You just, bam!hit the chord, which is nice sometimes, you know, but not all the fucking time.”

He would just smile and say, “Miles, just play the shit like I wrote it.” And I would. It was some strange-sounding shit back then. But Mingus was like Duke Ellington, ahead of his time. […]

Mingus was something else, man, a pure genius. I loved him.

And it’s always worth going back to Paul Berliner, Thinking in jazz—not only for the social aspects of learning and performing, but for technical analysis of all the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic detail of the various instruments.

Mingus’s life and music are well evoked on film, notably Triumph of the underdog (Don McGlynn, 1998):

as well as Charlie Mingus 1968 (Thomas Reichman):

Do follow up with The spiritual path of John Coltrane!




Bach’s Matthew Passion, staged

For virtual Easter, among the many blessings of the opening of the Digital Concert Hall website while live concerts are suspended (just create a free account here, valid for a month) is

  • Bach’s Matthew Passion in the staged version by Peter Sellars, with S–Simon Rattle directing the Berlin Phil in 2013:

Part I here, Part 2 here.

The audio of their 2014 Prom can currently be heard again on BBC Radio 3, but do immerse yourself in the ritual drama of the filmed version from Berlin.

At its heart is the astounding Mark Padmore as the Evangelist (note his illuminating discussion with Peter Sellars). Also moving is the human role of the chorus, as well as the staging of the arias—such as Aus liebe and Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand. The entire “collective meditation” is overwhelming.

On “intersubjective tears” in 18th-century German religious music, see here. Further to “performative tears” (links here), for anyone who doesn’t know Bach’s two settings of the Evangelist’s cry of “und ging hinaus/heraus… und weinete bitterlich“, then listen and weep, along with Peter and the Evangelist—

  • in the Matthew Passion (Part 2, from 18.55), leading into Erbarme Dich (for which, also click here and here),
  • and it’s just as moving in the John Passion (again with Mark Padmore here, from 33.48; cf. this Proms performance).

Jonathan Miller’s 1993 staged version is wonderful too:

For background on the Bach Passions—and,um, Daoist ritual—see here. For the Pasolini film, see here.

The rake’s progress


Stravinsky’s opera The rake’s progress (1951, with libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallmann, is loosely inspired by a series of paintings by William Hogarth.

I got to know the opera in 1979 through playing it in the pit with Riccardo Chailly and the London Sinfonietta in Milan for La Scala, with sets by David Hockney. With performances only every couple of days, it made a wonderful three-week holiday, giving me my first opportunity to explore Milan and the nearby towns of north Italy (Cremona, Brescia, Bergamo, Verona, and so on), long before our 1990s’ tours of Mozart operas in Parma and Ferrara (for more Italian inspirations, see here). “But that’s not important right now“.

Rake 1979

As ever, Richard Taruskin‘s perspectives on Stravinsky’s opera are stimulating (The danger of music, pp.109–17). It also gives me another pretext to admire the wonderful Barbara Hannigan—here she is in concert, singing, and conducting, Anne’s aria from Act 1:

To follow Susan MccLary’s incisive comments on the astounding use of the harpsichord in Brandenburg 5, I admire its sinister use in the Act 3 graveyard scene.

See also Stravinsky tag.


William Hogarth, In the madhouse.


The perils of tourism

Man jumping

Men Not Jumping.

I’ve already praised the exhilarating minimalist Buzz buzz buzz went the honey bee of Orlando Gough‘s band The Lost Jockey (for more minimalism, see here). Now, via the appearance of his brother Piers on Private passions, I delight further in

  • The perils of tourism, from the 1986 album World service by Lost Jockey’s successor Man Jumping

a band formed to take the Lost Jockey minimalism in the direction of pop, dance music and jazz, to get paid to play, and to concentrate on recording”.

Brian Eno described us as “the most important band in the world”—or did he? No-one was ever quite sure. The sales were disappointing. Managers were bought in, and mostly succeeded in irritating us. We probably would have benefited more from psychotherapists.

So here’s The perils of tourism—a concept almost, but not quite, before its time:

Here’s a great YouTube playlist for Man Jumping:

Their output also includes Lenin tempted by a job in advertising, a title of which Alexei Sayle would be proud. All this deserves to be far more popular—but it’s never too late. BTW, Orlando’s site has a wealth of drôle creative writing on his early travails on tour and the struggle between creativity and survival.

His later work continues to enchant. Continuing the theme of re-imagining world music, here’s a playlist of The world encompassed (2017), written for the enterprising viol consort Fretwork, about Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world—the title taken from a book by Drake’s nephew. As Orlando explains,

My approach is to imagine the viol players returning to England at the end of the voyage. Their friends say, so what was it like, this exotic music you heard? And they say, well, er, not so easy to give you an idea, but it was a bit like this……. And their version of the local music is as unreliable as the account of the voyage in The World Encompassed—biased, half-remembered, and severely compromised by the choice of instruments.



Brahms: tempo and timbre


I’m so utterly in love with Hélène Grimaud‘s piano-playing that I find she dispels all considerations of period style—indeed, pretty much everything else.

Still, inspired by her Brahms, and as early music gets later, I find myself browsing

notably Sherman’s own article:

  • “Metronome marks, timings, and other period evidence for tempo in Brahms”,

covering the range of Brahms’s ouevre—the symphonies, chamber music, the German requiem, and so on.

It’s a topic that has rears its ugly head with the fracas over Norrington’s recordings (cf. the rancorous vibrato debate in Mahler—don’t miss “Roger Norrington’s stupid Mahler Ninth”). Assembling an impressive array of evidence, Sherman’s conclusion is suitably underwhelming:

… in practice, it is evident that Brahms and his contemporaries took varying tempos from performance to performance. […] Brahms clearly did not believe that there is one ideal tempo for a work. He wrote that any “normal person” would take a different tempo “every week”.

Sherman’s website, BTW, is always stimulating.

As with baroque music, the use of historical instruments is an important element in the choice of tempo. As you may have gathered, I’m no purist, but here’s Hardy Rittner playing the 1st piano concerto on an 1854 Erard—like Mozart’s piano, once you’ve adjusted to the timbre, it has a lot to offer over the gargantuan glossiness of the modern instrument, however brilliantly performers like Grimaud manage to overcome it:

The issue of tempo is particularly notable in the Adagio (from 22.18), where the 6/4 metre flows more audibly than in “straight” performances (at least in the orchestral passages—there’s less contrast between the tempi of the piano solos). Whether it’s Adagio or not—let’s keep reading up…

Anyway, now I’d love to hear Grimaud playing it on an Erard, not least because I think she’d find even more potential there for her creative genius. But I’m sure she’s perfectly happy using the modern piano, and that’s fine!

For yet later HIP, try The Rite of Spring. And while we’re on Brahms, again casting aside academic concerns, do bask in Kleiber’s Brahms 2. For the long retardation of Tang music in Japan, see here.

Late Beethoven quartets


Through my teens, when I wasn’t listening to the Beatles or reading the Zen classics, I spent much of my time immersing myself in late Beethoven string quartets—almost a definition of “serious music”. And then I got to play them at Cambridge; but later (even before I read Susan McClary) I came to react against his cerebral style. Indeed, I’ve rarely heard a string quartet in live performance since the 1970s.

So after a long absence from these works, it was a suitably intense, immersive experience to hear the Salzburg-based Hagen quartet (no relation to Nina, alas) playing the A minor and C♯ minor quartets the other day at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The three siblings in the group (Lukas, Veronika, and Clemens) have been musicking together since childhood; and Rainer Schmidt replaced a fourth sibling back in 1987. With such long experience their blend of sonority is wondrous; they have clearly thought a lot about vibrato, now using it sparingly—notably Schmidt in the unsung role of 2nd violin.

Whereas the orchestral life can be soul-destroying (see Mozart in the jungle), with as much drudge as ecstasy (and for jazzers too, square notions like health and security tend to get sacrificed in the quest for creative autonomy), from the outside, making a living from chamber music seems like an enviable life—particularly belonging to a string quartet. For the virtuoso soloist, the repertoire is narrower, and travelling solitary; for jobbing orchestral musos, chamber music may serve as a reminder of why they took up music in the first place. Still, only a minority of quartets achieve a reliable “food-bowl”—and even they can’t avoid the trying routine of airports, hotels, and promotions (for insights on the life of a string quartet, see under Quartets). And of course, such stellar groups are just the tip of the iceberg: there’s a rich repertoire for amateur combos to explore.

* * *

The extreme contrasts of Beethoven’s late quartets display the kind of splintered psyche that only became explored commonly in the 20th century. Besides Joseph Kerman’s classic The Beethoven quartets (1967), among myriad discussions of the A minor quartet, see here; it has been much analysed, not least by Susan McClary in Conventional wisdom. Indeed, it has been cited as a counterbalance on the importance of analysing any world music, such as aboriginal dream songs.

Like the Bach Air, the Adagietto of Mahler 5, or indeed Daoist hymns, the Heiliger Dankgesang (also the well-chosen name for PDQ Bach‘s co-commentator) is even more intense when heard live in the context of the whole work. Here’s the Hagen quartet’s 2005 recording (from this playlist):

Since then, to judge from the concert, they may further refined the purity of their timbre for this movement and others such as of the penultimate Adagio of the C♯ minor quartet, often sounding even more like a viol consort.

Going back to the 1930s, when the use of vibrato was in flux, the seminal recordings of the Busch quartet (at Abbey road!) from 1936–37, on the eve of devastating global warfare, are less sparing with vibrato:

And here the Heiliger Dankgesang is much more molto adagio too:

And here are the 2017 recordings by the Quatuor mosaïques on original instruments—in line with changing modern tastes:

And, as a bonus, nearly two centuries after its premiere (which Beethoven missed as he was down the pub) the Große Fuge (or “The grocer” as it’s known in the biz) is even more challenging and revolutionary—like The Rite of Spring, its aural bombardment is always a shock:

Anyway, with fresh ears, I found the Hagen quartet’s concert most inspiring. So much for the apogee of “serious music” in WAM: for the global picture, do click here.

To end on a lighter and typically unsuitable note, click here for the creative tribulations of the composer according to Monty Python, and here for their Beethoven LP (“The second tune, which Beethoven said on his arrest was “just a harmless bit of fun…”).

Mahler 5 as you’ve never heard it

Mahler 5

Given that I adore Mahler 5, this is a strange way to introduce it. But having already delighted in Pachelbel’s capon, another gem from Two Set Violin‘s rubber chicken playlist is this unlikely rendition of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo—and it’s even funnier if you share my veneration for the work:

Just as well John Wilbraham didn’t know about this—he might have found the temptation too hard to resist.

On that trumpet solo, here’s an interesting post, that supplements Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective (no turn unstoned) with early reviews of the symphony like

Ugly symphony is well played . . . Mahler of Vienna writes bad music.

A long and tedious work.

I do not believe that this symphony is the kind of music that will live … It is a symphony which, it is devoutly hoped, will never again be heard in Chicago.

Of originality, he has not the slightest trace. His themes are trivial, sometimes vulgar, always uninteresting and lacking utterly beauty of melodic curve.

Hmm. Given that I entirely share the modern veneration for Mahler (this is the latest addition to my Mahler tag), and for the 5th symphony in particular, I don’t seem to be making much of a case for it. Just as relishing Always look on the bright side of life needn’t spoil our appreciation of the Bach Passions, please don’t let all this put you off the Real Thing— here’s Bernstein with the Vienna Phil yet again:

And the great Klaus Tennstedt in a recording from 1980:

And Claudio Abbado in 2004:

For S-S-Simon conducting the 2nd movement, click here; and for a creative use of the Adagietto, here.

Unpacking “improvisation”

Improvisation in music is a concept that can easily mislead. The popular cliché is to contrast jazz and Indian raga with the detailed, fixed prescriptions of WAM; rather, it’s profitable to subsume improvisation under the whole process of musical creation, considering more and less flexible frameworks for performance.

Bruno Nettl has paid much attention to the subject, co-editing two splendid books:

  • Bruno Nettl and Melinda Russell (eds.), In the course of performance: studies in the world of musical improvisation (1998)
  • Gabriel Solis and Bruno Nettl (eds.), Musical improvisation: art, education, and society (2009).

In Chapter 4 of his masterly The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, “Inspiration and perspiration: creative processes”, Nettl unpacks the issues in typically illuminating fashion. Pondering “What is the nature of musical creation?”, he explores the continuums mediating between composition and performance. Here’s a typical passage showing how he treats all human musickings on a equal footing:

Schubert is said to have composed a song while waiting to be served at a restaurant (presumably by a slow waiter), quickly writing it on the back of a menu; Mozart turned out some of his serenades and sonatas almost overnight; and Theodore Last Star, a Blackfoot singer and medicine man, had visions in each of which, in the space of a brief moment, he learned, from a guardian spirit, a new song. But Brahms labored for years on his first symphony, Beethoven planned and sketched ideas for his Ninth for over two decades, and William Shakespear, an Arapaho elder, said that when he took a motif from one song, something else from another, and a phrase from a third, thus making up a Peyote song, it might take him a good part of an afternoon. The xylophonist of a Chopi orchestra made up music as he went along, but he was constrained by rules articulated by his leader. The North Indian sitarist sits down before his audience and creates a performance of new music on the spot, but he can do this only because for hours every day he practices exercises that he has memorised, as he maintains in his mind a musical vocabulary on which he can draw and a group of rules that tell him, once he has selected a raga, what he must, may, or cannot do. A Kentucky mountaineer about 1910 sang “The Two Sisters” in a tavern, his friends admiring a new twist he put into the refrain. And the overjoyed Bach lover after the cello recital exclaims, “She’s never played it like this before. She makes the suite live like no one else.” In some sense, each of these musicians has created music, but music scholars actually know very little about the way in which such music comes about, especially in its innovative aspect, which is what they most admire. They believe, as Blum (2009) explains in detail, that when music is produced (in any sense of the word), something new is being created.

There is innovation—of different sorts—in the composition of a symphony, in the jazz improvisation on a well-known show tune, in the unique rendition of a Japanese chamber work that has been handed down with little change for generations, or in a rendition of a standard string quartet. Ethnomusicologists in particular must deal with what is new, new in a sense generally understood by them but new also within the specific cognitive framework and understanding of its culture.

But what is “newness”? Speaking cross-culturally, what may be heard as new composition in one culture might be regarded as simple variation in another. Judging the degree of innovation is a tricky business. The Persian improviser who by the standards of European composition gives his audience something different each time he performs may not be, in his own manner of musical thought, doing something really new, but simply “playing a particular mode”. By contrast, the Blackfoot singer who learned a song in a vision may have thought of it as a new song, even if objectively it sounded virtually identical to a song that had been received by one of his friends in another vision. The South Indian musician with a penchant for giving her audience unexpectedly strange vocalizations runs the risk of rendering something outside the realms of propriety and being criticized for not knowing her basic material. The American composer who writes a piece inspired by Hindemith or Stravinsky might be criticized for presenting something belonging to the past and thus not properly innovative.

Nettl goes on to suggest three intersecting continuums:

it is also the result of the manipulation and rearrangement of the units of a given vocabulary, of hard work and concentration. The concepts of inspiration, of genius, and of acquiring music directly from supernatural sources are very widespread among human societies, simple and complex. Haydn worked regular hours and depended on some kind of inspiration; when it did not come, he prayed for it, rather like the Native American seeking a vision who is also, in effect, praying for songs. At the other end of the line is the concept of composition as an essentially intellectual activity, in which the musician consciously manipulates the materials, or building blocks, of music […]. […] The listener may be unaware of all the care that went into the preparation of this complex structure. But such an approach is not limited to societies with written notation and music theory texts. Native American composers of Peyote songs may be equally careful, using and abiding by general structural principles that govern the song, musically making clear a number of intricate relationships, deriving new phrases from earlier ones, all within a rather rigidnly defined formal framework. Yet it seems unlikely that the typical Native American listener understands the details of the structure.

The two ends of the continuum merge: Mozart’s music sounds to many divinely inspired, and we know it was often composed quickly, yet has incredible consistency and great complexity. The songs of the Yahi of California, sung by Ishi, the last “wild” Indian, each ten seconds long and using only some three or four tones, exhibit considerable sophistication in their internal interrelationships, with a logic not totally unlike that of Mozart. An Iranian musician says that his improvised performance comes “from the heart”, but analysis shows us highly structured and sophisticated patterns unique to the performer. A performer of improvised Indian alapana learns a vast repertory of melodic and rhythmic units that can and must be interrelated in many ways, exhibiting her skill in showing the multitude of combinations she can control, yet many in her culture regard this music as essentially spiritual. Each case confronts us with aspects of both ends of the continuum, obviously in different proportions.

  • From improvisation to composition—two versions of the same process. Again, Nettl compares Schubert’s rapid composition of a sonata with the assembly of an Indian improvisation: “the fact that Schubert used paper and pen might actually be considered incidental”. He suggests that even the gigantic labour of composing a symphony is cognate with the technique of a Yahi Indian composer, and that Horowitz’s multiple renditions of Beethoven may be compared with an Arabic musician performing the maqam.
  • From precomposition to composition to revision: another process common worldwide, played out over years or minutes.

Nettl then stresses the false dichotomy between the composing of “art” and “folk” musics:

There seems no reason to regard composition in cultures with oral and written traditions as different species. […] In each culture, the musician is “given” something and then has the job of adding something else, but there are many different kinds of “given” and “added”.

Discussing the balance between the two, he concedes that there are many societies in which innovation is restricted, adducing Anglo-American folk song and South Indian kriti.

What is “given” to the creator of music are the building blocks and the rules of what may be done with them; innovation consists of how the options are exercised.

Finally Nettl homes in on “improvisation”—whose definition as “the creation of music in the course of performance” already looks dubious. As always, he gives useful leads to the whole history of research on such topics. He praises Paul Berliner’s Thinking in jazz, the classic analysis of the diverse elements on which jazz performers draw.

As improvisation received more attention, ethnomusicologists also began to see it as complex syndrome of behaviors, and the distinction from traditionally conceived composition began to blur.

He notes the role of improvisation in WAM, from early performances where “the quality of musicianship is judged by the degree to which the improvised piece sounds as if it were not improvised” to the 19th-century rhapsodies and impromptus, which were “composed and written out but seem to be intended to make the listener think they are improvised, or at least somehow connected with an immediacy and spontaneity of creation”.

Left: Clara Schumann with Robert; right: Dariush Talai.

It’s good to find WAM taking its place where it belongs, within ethnomusicology, or “all the musics of the world”. In the later history of WAM, as increasingly prescriptive notation (a red herring: see also here), and the recording industry, came to limit improvisation, I can’t help feeling that WAM musicians have sacrificed a lot.

Themes in the collection Musical improvisation include Ukrainian funeral laments, jazz, and Persian music—and several authors write on WAM, including Robert Levin, whose renditions of Mozart, notably his improvised cadenzas, are so brilliant. We might now hear much of the romantic piano repertoire as improvisations to which performers gave a fixed form, as Messiaen did later with his Messe de la Pentecôte.

Indeed, it makes sense to suggest that the kinds of things we call improvisation exhibit such variety—everything from simply adding ornaments to a composition to totally (well, almost totally) “free” improvisation, from oral composition to following precise rules in re-creation—and are practised in so many cultures that improvisation ought to be considered the central form of music creation, with traditional Western-style composition, with pen and ink, as a highly developed subtype.

In his introduction to In the course of performance Nettl also mentions Albert Lord’s 1965 The singer of tales and the study of Gregorian chant. Among topics covered in the volume are Javanese gamelan, African–American girls’ singing games, Italian folk song, and the Preludes of Clara Schumann (for an idea of how she might have improvised, do listen to Hélène Grimaud‘s playing in the Brahms concertos—in particular the slow movements!). See also the Dream songs of Australian aborigines.

All this also suggests ways of understanding the whole range of musicking in China: shawm bands (whose music, misleadingly, often sounds “improvised”), silk-and-bamboo (perhaps akin to Irish music—the heterophony of instrumental ensembles is often akin to the ornamentations and divisions of early WAM); as well as folk song, the qin zither (e.g. here), the parameters of performing Daoist ritual, and so on. And it makes yet another caveat against reification: performance as process.

Reading Nettl is endlessly stimulating.

Yin and yang: the divine Hélène Grimaud

More images here.

On this blog I’ve already featured the radiant magic of Hélène Grimaud, in

—all of which you simply must listen to. Here’s a further hommage.

See also her 2003 memoir Variations sauvages, English translation Wild harmonies: a life of music and wolves, 2007); and for a most insightful article, do read this New Yorker piece from 2011.

Since her London appearances are far too infrequent (her planned visit in June 2020 had to be postponed—has she really not come here since her numinous “Water” recital at the Barbican in 2015?), I resort to relishing her performances of the two colossal Brahms piano concertos online. Here’s a trailer:

And the two concertos complete:

For a sequel on tempo and timbre in Brahms, with a HIP version of the 1st concerto, see here.

I trust you too will be unable to resist going on to admire her live performances of both works online (here and here)—indeed whole days can, and should, go by as you bask in all of her ouevre there.

OK, one can’t help noticing that she is one of the most entrancingly beautiful people ever to grace the planet—neither here nor there, one might say, but her own unassuming radiance goes hand in hand with her music. She embodies a perfect combination of yin and yang, with both innige spiritual intimacy and intensely muscular emotional intelligence.

Here she gives an interview in French on the Rachmaninoff concerto and Abbado:

Here she plays Schumann with Ann Sofie von Otter:

And returning to the Ravel concerto, here’s the exquisite slow movement again:

Meredith Monk


Pursuing my New York theme, another great female composer on the splendid T-shirt is Meredith Monk (b.1942).

Donald Macleod’s ever-engaging coverage on BBC Radio 3’s Composers of the week makes a useful introduction; see also this appreciation from Tom Service. Here’s an extensive playlist:

Some tracks I like:

Porch (1970):

Songs of ascension (2008):

Hocket (1990) (cf. here):

Here’s a playlist for her opera Atlas (1991), inspired by the intrepid traveller Alexandra David-Néel:

Monk’s sound world has affinities not only with minimalism (cf. here, and here) but with folk and early music. Apart from music, theatre, and dance, her work in film is also striking. Here’s an excerpt from Book of days (1988):

And to complement my Halloween post, here’s Scared song (1986):

I love the way New York (and indeed London) has room for this kind of thing alongside Blondie, Madonnapunk, and so on—genre-bending, always dissolving boundaries.

Some remarkable female vocalists feature prominently in my Playlist of songs, such as Nina Hagen, Barbara Hannigan and Enza Pagliara.



The Masque of the Red Death




Here’s some seasonal macabre.

The Conte fantastique after Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death by the gifted André Caplet (1878–1925), for harp and string quartet, deserves to rank alongside the better-known works with harp by his contemporaries Debussy and Ravel.

Given that today’s date (#DieInADitchDay) has been constantly on the lips of sinister, mendacious Tory toffs desperate to pull up the drawbridge and feast on the bendy bananas so long denied them, the plot has a topical ring:

The prince and his nobles have taken refuge to escape the Red Death, indifferent to the sufferings of the population, sealing the doors shut and awaiting the end of the plague in luxury behind the walls.


Prix de Rome 1901: far right, Ravel; 3rd from right, Caplet. Source here.

Here’s Caplet’s Conte fantastique with the great Lily Laskine (1893–1988):

It’s dedicated to Micheline Kahn; meanwhile in Paris between the wars, Noor Inayat Khan was studying the harp with Henriette Renié, another teacher at the École Normale de Musique.


Caplet’s sonic treatment is just as dramatic, and its dénouement just as scary, as Roger Corman’s 1964 film The Masque of the Red Death, starring Vincent Price. Here’s a trailer:


A recognition sextet, and more stammering



To follow my Mozart opera dream:

Of all the wonderful music in The marriage of Figaro, I think we in the orchestra all lavished particular loving care on the Act 3 sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso, in which Figaro recognizes his parents.

The focus on the rather naff dramatic business tends to distract from the riches of the exquisite music—there’s so much delight in caressing the orchestral accompaniment. Here’s our 1993 recording:

A minor bonus for me personally is the role of the stammering notary Don Curzio (sadly, I wasn’t employed as a voice coach). His imp-p-pediment is harder to suggest in metered song than in recitative—this clip includes the recitative as performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris:

But Kleiber’s 1955 recording manages to include it in the sextet itself (@2.45):

* * *

The figure of the stammering lawyer or notary goes back to Tartaglia in commedia dell’arte and Il Tartaglione, foil to Polecenella in Neapolitan puppetry. Don Curzio’s stammer was created by the Irish tenor Michael Kelly; indeed, Mozart feared that it detracted from his music, but Kelly convinced him to keep it since it was an audience-pleaser—Typical!

Besides all the musical portrayals of disfluency that I mentioned in this post (including Rossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”), we can add Vašek in Smetana’s The bartered bride:

An earnest yet drôle article considers it a sympathetic portrayal; but

some nameless “laryngologists” [!] were quoted maintaining that it is quite impossible to stutter in Vašek’s way. No systematic phoniatric analysis of his fluency disorder has been published. The present study is assessing and enumerating Vašek’s tonic, clonic and tonoclonic speech blockades. It also delivers musical examples of his effective stuttered phrases and compares them to scientific descriptions and objective registrations of physical (external) and psychical (internal) symptoms of stuttering in phoniatric textbooks. It confirms the complete agreement of Smetana’s artistic expression of speech disfluency with the real stuttering.

And the role of Dr Blind in Die Fledermaus led me to this blistering review (“Mark Saltzman as Dr Blind was made to labor under the delusion that stammering jokes are funny”—no turn is left unstoned). But Barbara Hannigan’s portrayal of Gepopo still takes the b-b-biscuit.


Mozart vocal trios

I don’t really go in for the analysis of dreams, though I did report the pitiless satirizing of my naïve aspirations to insider status in Lisbon. Now I’m most grateful to a dream that I had the other night for reminding me of one of Mozart’s most magical vocal trios (cf. Mozart for winds, and genius).

Like many musos, I regularly have dreams where I find myself in a prestigious venue struggling to perform a challenging piece for which I’m totally unprepared, perhaps further unable to find how to get onto the stage, and equipped with the wrong instrument (as in this Larson cartoon).

In this case I can’t recall the context—I was involved somehow in the performance, but I don’t think I was singing; and I didn’t catch any lyrics. On waking up, it took me a while to realize that what I had heard in my sleep was Protegga il guisto cielo from the Act 1 finale of Don Giovanni—a piece that I hadn’t heard for many years. Though in my dream I distinctly heard it in E (!), it’s actually in B♭:

Protegga il giusto cielo il zeto del mio cor     May a just Heaven protect my heart’s zeal
Vendichi il giusto cielo il mio tradito amor   May a just Heaven avenge my outraged love

In the context of the Act 1 finale the trio is even more moving, with the frantic dramatic activity suddenly interrupted by those two descending phrases on strings to lead into an oasis of moral probity.

Thankyou, dream. It takes me back to the annual cycle of Mozart operas that we did around Europe in the 1990s, punctuating my visits to China to study the ritual association of Gaoluo village. Our 1994 Don Giovanni tour started in Parma—where a beautiful Italian relationship also began for me.

While I’m here, I just have to add another exquisite little trio (terzettino): Soave sia il vento from Così fan tutte, which we performed in 1992. Here’s another version:

Little gems like this don’t necessarily spread into the wider world, but it’s gratifying how greatly loved this one has become, partly through featuring in films like Sunday bloody Sunday. And this trio really is in E—I wonder if that’s why my dream transposed the other one for me…

This leads nicely to Aboriginal dream songs.

Art: insider knowledge


In my post on Visual culture I cited Alan Bennett’s remarks comparing Renaissance audiences’ “insider knowledge” of the religious themes shown in paintings of the time—knowledge to which very few of us now have access—with that of film viewers in his own childhood. This entry from his 2011 diaries (in Keeping on keeping on) suggests a similar case:

17 April. Seeing a banana skin on the pavement reminds me how when I first read the Dandy and the Beano the presence of a banana skin meant that inevitably it was going to be slipped on. No matter that, at that time, in the early 1940s, few children had even seen let alone eaten a banana, the skin was still shorthand for calamity. Other comic clichés were a fish, almost certain to be stolen by a cat and always represented as a perfect skeleton devoid of flesh but still with the head on; a string of sausages, destined to be grabbed by a dog, the sausages trailing from the dog’s mouth like a scarf in the wind; a bull (beware of) in a field, a billy goat similarly, with a ladder another portent of disaster. The bump on the head which might be the consequence of one of these mishaps was generally described as being “as big as a pigeon’s egg”, something else which like the banana I had never seen.

While I’m here, in the very next entry he asks a sensible question:

18 April. Why does the opening theme of Tchaikovsky’s No.1 Piano Concerto never return? What is that about? Everybody listening to it (at least for the first time) must always have expected it. But no.

Indeed, when the concerto is said to be popular, I suspect people mean that opening theme—which may make the rest of the piece quite tough going.

Messiaen’s transcendent éclairs


At a certain remove from recent excursions in Persian chamber music or northern soul

To follow the monumental orchestral works Turangalîla and Des canyons aux étoiles, the other day I went to hear S-Simon Rattle conducting the LSO in Messiaen‘s final masterpiece Éclairs sur l’au-delà …, and it’s every bit as enthralling. *

Programme notes here; BBC Radio 3 broadcast here (for a limited time—unlike Eternal Life).

The title translates as “Illuminations of the beyond” or “Lightning over the beyond”; for éclairs, “epiphanies” seems to work well too. ** Written from 1988 to 1991, the piece was commissioned by the New York Phil and first performed by them in 1992 under Zubin Mehta, shortly after the composer’s death.

The recordings of Myung Whun Chung with the Orchestre de l’Opéra Bastille (1994), and S-Simon with the Berlin Phil (2004) are much praised. On YouTube the former appears movement by movement, starting here. Here’s a continuous version from Sylvain Cambreling, enhanced by some well-chosen visual images:

But as always, it’s even more immersive to hear it live. First S-Simon came on stage alone to introduce the work, a personal touch to prepare us for the enormity of the experience.

Like listening to Bach, whatever our relationship with Christianity (under the Messiaen tag, note also The right kind of spirituality?), it’s a deeply moving, ecstatic work—the unique melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic language of Messiaen’s spiritual vision achieved here without piano or ondes martenot. The movements are:

Apparition du Christ glorieux (Apparition of the glorious Christ)
La constellation du Sagittaire (The constellation of Sagittarius)
L’oiseau-lyre et la ville-fiancée (The lyrebird and the bridal city)
Les élus marqués du sceau (The elected ones marked with the seal)
Demeurer dans l’amour … (To abide in love …)
Les Sept Anges aux sept trompettes (The seven angels on the seven trumpets)
Et Dieu essuiera toute larme de leurs yeux … (And God will wipe every tear from their eyes …)
Les étoiles et la gloire (The stars and the glory)
Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de vie (Several birds of the trees of life)
Le chemin de l’invisible (The way of the invisible)
Le Christ, lumière du Paradis (The Christ, light of paradise)

Following the hieratic opening brass chorale, the piece is majestic, sensuous, and exhilarating. As ever, the divine messages of birdsong punctuate the work—Plusieurs oiseaux des arbres de vie, with avian wind soloists dispersed around the hall, was glorious. Confession: in some of the faster passages with zany xylophone I can’t help hearing echoes of Tom and Jerry

Like the solo movements for cello and violin of the Quatuor pour la fin du temps, in addition to the intensity of Demeurer dans l’amour (a slow central movement akin to the Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla), the finale is another long, slow, sustained meditation for luminous strings, now with the distant halo of a triangle. Brilliant playing throughout the orchestra!

Éclairs sur l’au-delà … is just overwhelming. Like Turangalîla, never miss the opportunity to hear it in live performance!

* I’m generally most attached to the ellipsis (…), but here it plays the exalted role of symbolizing the infinite. Note for pedants like me: the ellipsis in the French title is indeed preceded by a space, which seems to be less common in French style than in English. “But that’s not important right now“.

** Cf. Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, where I note the tempting schoolboy translation trap of Le plaisir passe comme un éclair. Ah, the evanescent thrill of the cream bun.

A Shanghai Prom

SSO Prom

I’m not exactly in the mood to celebrate glossy official showpieces for Chinese modernity, but I appreciated the TV broadcast of the recent Prom by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Long Yu.

The Beeb still can’t help going to town on the unbeatable cliché “East meets West”—as if even now all this, um, International Cultural Exchange (oops, there goes another one) is some novel discovery, some audacious, exotic experiment (cf. They come over ‘ere, and China–Italy).

One of the most readable accounts of Chinese music,

  • Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989),

gives some leads to the chequered history of the orchestra. It originated in the Shanghai Public Band, founded back in 1879 by a German professor with six other European musicians. In 1907 it became the Shanghai Municipal Symphony Orchestra, and in 1919 they hired the Italian conductor Mario Paci (1878–1946; see also here), a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire; his orchestra included many White Russian and Italian musicians.

In 1922 the orchestra was renamed the Shanghai Municipal Council Symphony Orchestra. Under Japanese occupation it became the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra. Among the Jewish refugees from Nazism who swelled the city’s expat population from the mid-1930s were many musicians.

Some Chinese players were admitted from the late 1920s, but by 1938 there were still only four of them in the orchestra; paid less, they had no social interaction with the European musicians. The audiences too were mostly Caucasian.

Among the Russian musicians in Shanghai was the composer Alexander Tcherepnin, who promoted both Western and Chinese music in Shanghai and Beijing from 1934 to 1937. Bach’s B minor Mass was performed in Shanghai.

Paci was a leading light in the founding of the Shanghai Conservatoire in 1927. In 1935 he invited the composer Xian Xinghai to conduct the orchestra for a concert, but they refused to play under the baton of a Chinese. Paci was in charge of the orchestra from 1917 until 1942, when the orchestra had to disband, with many foreign musicians and conductors leaving. After the 1949 “Liberation” it was re-formed in 1950, becoming the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1956.

One of the protagonists of Kraus’s study is the pianist Fou Ts’ong (1934–2020), who studied with Paci from 1943. Seeking political asylum after the 1958 Great Leap, he made his home in London, where he became a great friend of my own violin teacher Hugh Maguire.

The orchestra inevitably suffered grievously as the Cultural Revolution exploded in 1966. Whereas Soviet orchestras had managed to maintain high standards, Chinese orchestras, even after the liberalizations from the late 1970s, took many years to develop.

I’m pretty sure most of the band would be bemused by my own tastes in musicking around ShanghaiKunqu, folk opera, silk-and-bamboo, Daoist ritual… Meanwhile the more cosmopolitan aspect of musical life in swinging Shanghai before Liberation is covered in another fine book,

  • Andrew Jones, Yellow music: media culture and colonial modernity in the Chinese jazz age (2001),

It opens with a vignette on the African-American trumpeter Buck Clayton, leader of the Harlem Gentlemen in Shanghai on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Back in the USA he worked with Count Basie; Billie Holiday, no less, described him as “the prettiest cat I ever saw”.


The Harlem Gentlemen at the Canidrome ballroom.

* * *

The Prom began with The five elements by Chen Qigang, (b.1951), a Messiaen pupil and one of the most meticulous and imaginative of Chinese composers. Eric Lu then played Mozart’s wonderful A major piano concerto.

And a suitable choice, reminding us of Shanghai’s Russian heritage, was Rachmaninoff’s final work, the Symphonic dances (1941). I’ve only been getting know the piece quite recently, but it already ranks with the 2nd symphony in my affections. Among noted recordings are those of Golovanov, Svetlanov, and Kondrashin; but given that the piece was composed in American exile, Mitropoulos’s 1942 version is a popular choice. Here’s Kondrashin with the Moscow Philharmonic in 1963:

Among the glories of the Symphonic dances is a solo part for alto sax—again suggesting Shanghai’s jazz background. As an encore, a smoochy and bombastic arrangement of Molihua (another perennial Chinese music cliché)—strangely endearing as a snapshot of a bygone age of Chinese symphonic writing—led into a stirring rendition of Hey Jude, with fine jazzy solos on sax and trumpet and an audience singalong (for the Beatles original, see Alan W. Pollack’s analysis; cf. A Beatles roundup).

Now I dream of a Shanghai Daoist ritual at the Proms…


Tchaik 6, conductors, applause


I’m reminded of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” 6th symphony (1893) by the recent Prom, a few days after his violin concerto. For audiences and performers alike, both works may seem like old warhorses—you think “Yeah yeah” and then suddenly you find yourself immersed in all this soul-searching intensity.

Among recordings, Mravinsky is a popular choice (see also this typically engaging article by Tom Service). Here’s his vivid 1949 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic, as the whole society was recovering from the appalling sufferings of war—in mourning, relieved to have survived, yet anxious, and re-internalizing dissimulation:

And here’s the great Rozhdestvensky with the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, at the Proms in 1966 (alas, audio only):

I also want to feature Bernstein—mainly because I love him, but also because I’m reminded by my post on Paul Bowles, as well as John Eliot Gardiner’s recent vignette. Here he is in 1974 with the New York Phil on tour in Sydney, his stage presence mesmerizing as ever—as often, conducting from memory:

Far from the myth of the aloof Maestro-Dictator, the adulation for Bernstein is based both on the dynamic passion of his conducting and on his innovative role in the counter-culture. Norman Lebrecht, in his ever-readable The maestro myth (pp.180–205), explores Bernstein’s consecutive relationships with the New York and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras (for their Mahler, see also here, here, and here). Amidst Lebrecht’s signature exposé of the machinations of Big Business, it’s clear that Bernstein’s charisma inspired even hard-bitten musicians (for whom, see here, and here).

Mahler admired and promoted Tchaikovsky’s music, conducting celebrated performances of his operas. But though the dying finale of Mahler’s own 9th symphony echoes that of the Pathétique, it seems he never conducted it.

For Celibidache’s version, see here.

* * *

Whether or not we care to imagine the 1893 premiere, or indeed the lives of Soviet audiences in 1949 (cf. Haydn), the intensity of the Pathétique constantly deserves to be experienced afresh.

I’ve mentioned the “limping waltz” of the second movement in Taco taco taco burrito, introducing a range of aksak additive metres in different cultures.

The transition from the exhilaration of the third movement to the anguish of the finale, with the abrupt change of mood often interrupted by joyous applause, is one of those moments that continue to excite tedious controversy.

Applause between movements has long been a rallying cry for competing factions, only stimulated by the HIP movement, with conductors like Hogwood and Norrington encouraging it; but it remains a minefield. It’s worth reading this article by Alex Ross, and Chi-chi Nwanoku has revived the debate, eliciting a range of responses here.

Indeed, in the Good Old Days [sic] applause was common not just between movements but (as in jazz) even while the music is going on, as in the much-cited first performance of Mozart’s Paris symphony:

In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored. […] I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed…

Anyway, at the 1893 premiere of Tchaikovsky’s symphony the audience applauded after the third movement, and it’s always been common—not so much a tradition, or a superior piece of authenticity-upmanship, as a natural, spontaneous reaction. It seems cruel and pompous to deprive the audience of such a response, when the admission of is so intimidated by “rules”: when the slightest hint that what is going on here might be a dynamic social activity, or any physical response, must be suppressed. At the same time, conductors may not manage to forestall applause entirely, but they may interrupt it promptly by launching into the finale (as Rozhdestvensky did in the Prom).

In defence of the Proms audiences, a popular scapegoat for the puritans, there’s no other venue where silence is so exquisite.

Continuing to zoom out, how about the ullulations of the ahouach in Morocco, or (now I come to think of it) almost any other form of musicking?! For participants in most musical events around the world, the prissy niceties of WAM concert etiquette are mercifully irrelevant.

* * *

BTW, the opening of the finale is a “composite melody”, a kind of trompe l’oreille whereby the tune as we hear it (descending, conjunct motion) is divided between 1st and 2nd violins both playing unlikely, angular lines:

Tchaik 6

The two parts are demonstrated separately in Simon Broughton’s film Great composers: Tchaikovsky, with profound Russian thoughts from Yuri Temirkanov.

Anyone have other instances of this in WAM? It’s not quite like the hocketing cymbals of north Chinese ritual percussion, but hey.

This is one of many cases where the original antiphonal seating of the violin sections, facing each other on opposite sides of the platform, must enhance the audience’s experience. Indeed, placing them together only became common from the time of Stokowski and Henry Wood; several conductors, from Klemperer onwards, have retained or restored the traditional seating, both in the HIP and “straight” scenes.

More Messiaen at the Proms



I spare no efforts to remind everyone of Messiaen‘s astounding Turangalîlabut an equally monumental (if rather less catchy) later orchestral masterpiece is his Des canyons aux étoiles (1974), which I attended at Sunday’s Prom, hot on the heels of the NYO concert.

Composed “to Glorify God in the Beauties of His Creations; from the colours of the earth and the songs of the birds to the colours of the stars and the Resurrected Ones in Heaven”, it was inspired by the canyons of Utah. It features a vertiginous solo horn part (notably the sixth movement “Interstellar call”) alongside piano cadenzas with Messiaen’s signature birdsong. The mystical intimacy of “The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran” makes a tranquil centrepiece, akin to the enchanted Jardin du sommeil d’amour in Turangalîla.

Again, short of staging it at Bryce Canyon itself, the Royal Albert Hall makes a rather suitable venue. Given the work’s cosmic dimensions, it uses quite modest forces, with percussion prominent—notably xylorimba and glockenspiel, aeoliphone wind machine and geophone sand machine, with impressive solos from Nicolas Hodges (piano) and Martin Owen (horn). Sakari Oramo and the BBC Symphony Orchestra really know their way around this kind of music. Indeed, the orchestra did the first UK performance under Boulez in 1975.


Here’s a 2002 recording conducted by Myung-Whun Chung:

And here are the titles in English:

Part 1
The desert
The orioles
What is written in the stars
The white-browed robin-chat
Cedar Breaks and the gift of awe

Part 2
Interstellar call
Bryce Canyon and the red-orange rocks

Part 3
The resurrected and the song of the star Aldebaran
The mockingbird
The wood thrush
Omao, leiothrix, ‘elepaio, shama
Zion Park and the celestial city

For more Messiaen, see tag—not least Saint François d’Assise, and Éclairs sur l’au-delà …







Another great NYO Prom

I dragged myself away from the ullulations and percussion of Moroccan ahouach to go to the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain’s Prom. After a while away from WAM, it takes me some time to adapt to its conventions—music stands, behaviour, and so on.

But for all my reservations about WAM concerts, I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Proms. The round building, and the arena, fosters a rare engagement with the audience. in the case of the NYO’s annual appearances this relationship is further enhanced by proud parents, but everyone shares in the exhilaration—their visits are always special (see here, and here).

This year’s all-Russian Prom was directed by Mark Wigglesworth. The highlight was his own arrangement of a suite from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, always riveting in performance. Here it is:

Prokofiev composed the piece in 1935, but soon after his return to the Soviet Union the following year it proved controversial there. Only now that I read Figes’s The whisperers do I begin to appreciate the wider context, and the tribulations of artists and common people there.

For the great Rozhdestvensky’s view of Tchaikovsky’s version, see here.


In the first half, following Lera Auerbach’s Icarus (2011), Nicola Benedetti performed Tchaikovsky’s Violin concerto. It’s one of those pieces that I struggled with through my teens (cf. here), focusing on the virtuosity without beginning to understand where it was coming from. And, like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, it may suffer from familiarity, but it’s no mere lollipop (or, if you like, warhorse); it deserves hearing anew, with its plaintive wind solos. For Tchaik 6, see here.

As an encore, following her eloquent tribute to the band, Benedetti played Wynton Marsalis’s meditative solo As the wind goes, written for her. And the orchestra does a great line in encores too (cf. Hands free after Turangalîla in 2012!!!), continuing the Romeo and Juliet theme by launching joyously into Bernstein’s Mambo.

Just as inspiring an event, in its way, as an ahouach (also invigorated by the energy of young people)… The Terpsichorean muse, eh.


Morocco: Paul Bowles

1950 with Jane

Paul Bowles with his wife Jane Auer, 1950. Photo: Cecil Beaton.

My post on the film Performance, in which I mentioned Paul Bowles (1910–99: wiki here, website here), reminded me to explore his work on the musics of Morocco.

Bowles’s involvement with Moroccan music features rather intermittently in his story. Instead, accounts of both his early years and his later life after settling in Tangier from 1947 read like a Who’s Who of the Great Names of American and European culture.

As in many cases, biography (I read Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, An invisible spectator, 1989) provides a more dispassionate survey than Bowles’ own autobiography Without stopping (1972). Written under a publisher’s deadline while his wife Jane’s health was in terminal decline, “because he was so filled with pain and torment he had to shut off his emotions lest it consume the book. The result is that it’s a very impersonal memoir.” (An invisible spectator, p.406).

His relationship with his parents was fraught. As to his father,

I vowed to devote my life to his destruction, even though it meant my own—an infantile conceit, but one which continued to preoccupy me for many years.

This was perhaps a major element in his later escape to Morocco. First he travelled widely around Europe and Latin America. Trained as a pianist, he became a promising composer under the aegis of Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions. A plan to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger never came to fruition. Later he took part in Virgil Thomson’s splendidly-titled group The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, Inc.

On early and later trips between the USA, Europe, and Morocco, Bowles regularly met (and collaborated with) a stellar array of artists—including Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Krishnamurti, Manuel de Falla, Colin McPhee, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, Gore Vidal, Talullah Bankhead, John Cage, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anaïs Nin, John Huston, Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton, and Francis Bacon. To name but a few… He married the author Jane Auer in 1938; the sources are rather discreet, but for them and most of their wider circle, heterosexual proclivities were clearly not notable (see e.g. here).

Bowles had embarked on his first voyage to Morocco, with Copland, in 1931:

The trip to Morocco would be a rest, a lark, a one-summer stand. The idea suited my overall desire, that of getting as far away as possible from New York. Beiing wholly ignorant of what I should find there, I did not care. I had been told that there would be a house somewhere, a piano somehow, and sun every day. That seemed to me enough.

Indeed, on his travels he would constantly endure the travails of finding a workable piano—a suitable and unique punishment for the WAM composer. He also wrote reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, and began to review jazz.

This opened the door to folk music as well, inasmuch as it was my contention that every category of recorded music (except strictly commercial popular) ought to be covered.

Incidentally, Bela Bartók had collected folk music in north Africa as early as 1913. Bowles’s later contribution to Bartók’s Concerto for orchestra (1943) may not be so well known:

On an early trip to Casablanca [Bowles] bought a phonograph and “what the French call Chleuh records. (So-called Chleuh music is a popular genre evolved from the folk music of the Souss and sung in Tachelhait.)

The composer Henry Cowell had been using some of these discs in his teaching. Bowles recalls:

He asked me to make a set of records for Bela Bartók, who was living in Pittsburgh. Later he told me Bartók was incorporating the Chleuh material in a piece. Sure enough, when I heard the Concerto for orchestra, there was the music, considerably transformed, but still recognizable to me, who was familiar with each note of every piece I had copied for him.

I’m glad Paul Schuyler finds the connections elusive too (Music of Morocco, booklet).

From a period when W.H. Auden was presiding over an illustrious ménage in New York, Bowles has a nice story about Salvador Dalí and Harpo Marx:


At that time Dalí did occasional illustrations for Harper’s bazaar; once they had been reproduced, George [Davis] would bring them home and have them framed. One of these pictures was a fine pencil sketch of Harpo Marx playing a harp strung with barbed wire, while in the desert background some giraffes burned spectacularly. George had left the picture on the windowsill and gone out, and a rainstorm had come up. When he returned to the house, he found his Dalí drenched and stained, just where he had left it, and the window still wide open. He rushed to Susie, the maid, and began to recriminate with her, pointing at the picture and repeating: “How could you, Susie? It’s ruined! Ruined!” Susie was used to this sort of thing, but she sympathized and shook her head. “Yes, Mr Davis, you right,” she said. “It sure is too bad, and it was such a beautiful picture of your mother, too.”

Bowles gave himself over only gradually to fiction and the Moroccan life. Moving to Tangier in 1947, he made his name with the 1949 novel The sheltering sky, later adapted in a 1990 film by Bernardo Bertolucci.

He acquired a taste for kif and majoun, receiving regular visits from Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, as well as Timothy Leary. During a long trip with Gysin in 1950 they first encountered the musicians of Jajouka at a moussem in Sidi Kacem; Bowles described his ongoing relationship with them in Days: a Tangier journal. Later he would feel nostalgic for these early years; Morocco became independent in 1956, but Jane fell ill in 1957, suffering a long and painful decline until her death in 1973.

Another vignette: on a visit to India (p.312),

I liked the hotel in Aurangabad, and so we settled there for a while. The English manageress was a Christian Scientist and gave me some copies of the Monitor. She also mentioned that a countryman of mine, a Mr Monahan, was due to arrive at the hotel within the next few days. Perhaps I knew him? I said I did not. “He’s very famous,” she insisted. “A famous violinist.” I told her that I had never heard of him, adding that since I had been out of America for several years, he might have become famous since my departure. “No, no. He’s been ever so famous* for years.”
[Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Americans often use “ever so”, so this looks like an acute observation of his English host’s language.]

A few days later Mr Monahan did arrive and with Mrs Monahan took the suite next to mine. It was not long before he began to practice. Ahmed straightway pulled out his Moroccan lirah, or cane flute such as shepherds carry, and footled with it [sic]. The practicing stopped; there was muffled murmurs of surprise and incomprehension in the neighboring room. Each time the violin started up, Ahmed shrilled on the lirah. Presently Mr Monahan retired into a further room and shut the door, to continue his work unmolested. I hoped to avoid having to come face to face with him on the veranda. During siesta time that afternoon somewhere in the hotel a woman began to call: “Yehudi! Yehudi!” At this point I realized who Mr Monahan was. “Do you hear what that woman is calling her husband?” demanded Ahmed. “He ought to knock her down.” In Morocco when a mule or a donkey refuses to move, he gets the word “yehudi” shouted at him. I thought of this, and in order not to call forth some awful scene, I did not explain to Ahmed that Yehudi was actually the man’s name. Later in New York when I saw Menuhin again, I asked him if he remembered the flute in the hotel at Aurangabad, and he did.

This makes a pair with my Irish story aout Heifetz.

The 1959 recording project
While Bowles’s own memoirs (pp.344–6) are rather laconic on the subject of his 1959 project, An invisible spectator (pp.349–51) provides some detail. [1] In fact he had already applied for a grant without success some twenty-five years earlier (!). But now,

Before leaving New York, Bowles learned that the Rockefeller Foundation had at last awarded him a grant. He went to the Foundation’s headquarters and was given a crash course in how to operate the professional-quality Ampex tape recorder that they were also providing him. By late May he was back in Tangier, eager to begin his recording. As Jane was holding steady, he decided to set out in July, thinking that it would only take him a short while to arrange permission with the authorities to do his recording. He soon became entangled in Moroccan governmental procedures, however, and finally decided to dispense with trying to obtain formal permission. Instead, he went to the American consulate, which drew up a document stating that the US government was behind the project. The affixed several seals, stamps, and signatures and attached Bowles’s photograph; Bowles decided that it looked sufficiently formal to enable him to begin the project.

In the interim, he had gathered two traveling companions: Christopher Wanklyn, who spoke good Maghrebi and owned a Volkswagen; and a Moroccan, Mohammed Larbi, who’d recently escorted a British expedition on a trans-Saharan journey. Together, over the next five months, on four separate trips, they would travel some 25,000 miles through some of Morocco’s most remote and rugged locales. Of the second trip, made from August 29 to September 22, 1959, Bowles kept a detailed account; he later published a selection of the travel notes as an article, “Ketama Taza”, reprinted in expanded form as “The Rif, to music”, in his book of travel essays, Their heads are green and their hands are blue.

The journey was not without difficulties. First, there was the physical hardship of abysmal hotels, tortuous roads, heat, and ultimately, for Bowles, illness. Second, there was the problem of making recordings. Although Bowles had originally expected governmental hostility, the local authorities were for the most part quite cordial and helpful. This, however, could not compensate for the fact that the Ampex ran only on 110-volt AC current and was not equipped with a battery pack [!!!]. As a result, recording could only be done where there was electricity, and of the correct voltage. Despite all the difficulties, however, Bowles managed to collect a huge variety of music, representative of nearly all of Morocco.

More photos here.

There would, in fact, have been even more music recorded, but in October 1959 the Moroccan government suddenly decided that since his project was “ill-timed” (whatever that meant), he would not be allowed to undertake it. Bowles recalled that “the American Embassy advised me to continue my work”. He proceeded, but by December the government had become aware of what he was doing. “They informed me summarily that no recordings could be made in Morocco save by special permission from the Ministry of Interior…. I had practically completed the project… however, from then on it was no longer possible to make any recordings which involved the cooperation of the government; this deprived the collection of certain tribal musics of southeastern Morocco.” Even with the lack of this latter music, Bowles had recorded more than 250 separate selections by the end of December.

Curiously enough, Bowles’s efforts have never been terribly appreciated in Morocco. According to him, the prevalent “official” Moroccan attitude these days is that traditional folk music is “degenerate”. Indeed, in the 1960s the government engaged in an all-out effort to encourage the composition of “patriotic” music, which would contain a political message—specifically, singing the praises of Morocco and Moroccan progress. The gradual “development” of many of the remote regions of the country and an increased migration from the country to the cities had a profound impact on traditional musical forms. Many of the forms that Bowles recorded are now near impossible to hear in Morocco; and those that are heard are often diluted or mixed with other forms.

As Schuyler comments, “change and hybridity, the very forces that keep music vital, were, in his view, signs of decay.” But Bowles’s fear for the future of such traditions was premature.

In the United States, despite the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Library of Congress, the tapes went promptly into an archive, where for more than a decade they gathered dust. Finally, in 1972, the Library of Congress did issue a superb, two-volume record set, containing a fine sampling of Bowles’s collection. Nonetheless, countless hours of recordings have never been released to the public and most likely never will be.

Still, Bowles and Wanklyn managed to make some additional recordings from 1960 to 1962, and in 1965 Smithsonian Folkways issued a disc under Wanklyn’s name alone (notes here).

Bowles’s notes, reproduced with the 1972 discs (here and here), are impressive, providing cultural and musical background to the tracks. Here’s a revealing vignette:

The Ait Ouaraine live in the mountains southeast of Fez and until recently were in great demand among the residents of that city as entertainers at weddings and other household festivals. Here only women performed, one of them using a bendir as accompaniment. Before setting up the recording session I had been told by the governmental katib that I would be hiring three people to perform. When three men and four women arrived, I began to look forward to difficulties at the moment of payment. The leader of the group, however, was scrupulous about honoring his agreement. “Three people,” he said when I came to pay him, and I remembered that women are not people; these four ha[d] been brought along as decorative assistants and did not expect to be paid.

And in 2016, long after the two Bowles LPs were issued in 1972, the Library of Congress published a handsome four-CD set Music of Morocco, with illuminating additional notes by Philip Schuyler, from both Bowles’ diaries and his own experience. Here’s an online playlist:

I wonder how they decided where to go, and who to seek. Of course, there were (and are) musicians everywhere, but identifying worthwhile genres and performers requires considerable local knowledge. The government resistance, and stress on patriotism and development, reminds me of China—although some fine fieldwork projects were under way there at the time.


From Music of Morocco (2016).

Schuyler provides further material on the trips, such as:

The very first recording session, on August 1 in the seaside village of Ain Diab, seemed to bear out Bowles’s expectations. In Ain Diab, the team took advantage of a festival (musem, or in Paul’s Tangier dialect, ‘amara) in honor of the saint Sidi Abderrhamane. At these events, pilgrims come to worship and celebrate at the saint’s shrine, and merchants, restaurateurs, and entertainers all set up shop to accommodate them. With the cooperation of government officials overseeing the festival, Bowles was able to record six different genres of music representing seven different tribal groups or geographical regions in just two days. The musicians were mostly professionals and many of them, like the pilgrims, had come from a great distance, probably at government expense. It is difficult sometimes to tell exactly who these musicians were or where they resided, because Bowles was recording so quickly that he had little time to gather information.

Alas, these were audio recordings only, in formal conditions removed from social activity. Strangely (given Bowles’ own passion for language), he hardly documented the vocal texts. And as he wrote, “complex arrangements were often necessary for transporting musicians from their remote villages to places where the electric power supply was compatible with the recording equipment.” Still, the set makes a fine survey of diverse vocal and instrumental genres. With my taste for shawms (further Chinese examples on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here), track 3.03 on the YouTube playlist above is enchanting.

Apart from the 1959 project, Bowles doesn’t seem to have written in much detail about his encounters with folk musicking or performers, in either the cities (his main base) or the countryside. In Fez he sometimes attended domestic mizane performances of Andaluz music; he visited religious festivals in the countryside, and he encountered the Sufi brotherhoods quite early (Without stoppingpp.150–151):

At that time more than half the population of Morocco belonged to one or another of the religious confraternities which enable their adepts to achieve transcendence of normal consciousness (a psychic necessity all over the African continent) and to do so in Islamic terms. For most educated Moroccans the existence of the cults is an abomination; with the emergence of nationalism they were suppressed more or less successfully for two decades or more. When once again they were sanctioned, care was taken to see that the observances took place hidden from the sight of non-Moslems. Visitors might ridicule the participants, it was said, or consider Moroccans a backward people if they witnessed such spectacles. I had suspected that I would stumble onto a scene which would show me the pulse of the place, if not the exposed, beating heart of its magic, but it was a tremendous surprise to find it first on the open street. Yet there they were, several thousand people near Bab Mahrouk, stamping, heaving, shuddering, gyrating, and chanting, all of them aware only of the overpowering need to achieve ecstasy. They stayed there all day and night; I could hear the drums from my room, and during the night they grew louder. The next morning the mob was at Bab Dekaken, just outside the hotel. Then I realized that it was a procession, moving at the rate of approximately a hundred feet an hour, with such extreme slowness that as one watched no visible progress was made. Along the edges of the phalanx there were women in trance; pink and white froth bubbled from their mouths; small shrieks accompanied their spastic motions. When someone lost consciousness entirely and fell, he was dragged inside the wall of onlookers. It took the procession two days to get from Bab Mahrouk to Bab Chorfa, a distance of perhaps a mile. I should never have believed an account of the phenomenon had I not been watching it. But which one or more of the brotherhoods the participants represented, whether they were Aissaoua or Jilala or Hamatcha or something else, there was no way of knowing, nor did I ask. Here for the first time I was made aware that a human being is not an entity and that his interpretation of exterior phenomena is meaningless unless it is shared by other members of his cultural group. A bromide, but one that had escaped until then.

Later he introduced Jane to the amara gathering of Aissoua pilgrims the cult at Moulay Brahim (Without stopping, pp.285–6). But while he made some recordings of the brotherhoods, such curiosity never evolved into a desire to document them more thoroughly. Although as a long-term resident he was well qualified to conduct such research, he sought tranquil places to live in order to focus on writing; Morocco was a breeding-ground for his creative life, not quite an object of detailed ethnography.

* * *

In a separate project, Alan Lomax went on to record in Morocco in 1967 (see here, and here). By the 1970s it was among the field-sites of the intrepid Bernard Lortat-Jacob. The relevant chapter in his perceptive book

  • Musiques en fête: Maroc, Sardaigne, Roumanie (1994)

makes a good introduction to the kinds of issues that one seeks to address in field research. He documents the laamt village-wide societies that organize the ahouach festivals, the recourse to occupational musicians, and the various genres.


Ahouach. Source  here.

Bernard also released several CDs:

  • Musique berbère du Haut-Atlas, 1971
  • Maroc, musique berbère, un mariage dans le Haut-Atlas oriental, 1975
  • Berbères du Maroc, “Ahwach”, 1979.

Over the same period, Philip Schuyler (later involved in the issuing of the 4-CD Bowles recordings) was conducting research, such as

  • “Berber professional musicians in performance”, in Gerard Béhague (ed.) Performance practice: ethnomusicological perspectives (1984),

as well as also producing his own recordings.

For more on ahouach and ahidus festivals, I also like the slim tome

  • Miriam Roving Olsen, Chants et danses de l’Atlas (1997, with CD).

The Moroccan cultural authorities produced a 31-CD set in 2002, critically reviewed here, as well as a 66-CD set. There are further revelations in the 10-CD anthology, Chikhates and chioukhs of the Aïta (2017).

Still (my usual refrain), audio recordings are all very well, and they make an important adjunct to silent analysis on the page; but it seems sad to reduce the intense, exhilarating vibrancy of such social activities (not least dancing) to disembodied sound objects (cf. McClary‘s “denial of the body”)—like the “red-hot sociality” of Chinese temple fairs and funerals, they cry out to be documented on ethnographic film. I’ve spent ages searching online for even brief clips that aren’t too commodified—try this, from the moussem of Sidi Douad, Ouarzazate, in 2004:

But as I glimpsed while eavesdropping on a wedding in the Atlas mountains in 2000, neither academic analysis nor audio or video representations can substitute for actual participation in such events.

Wedding, Imlil 2000. My photos.

Meanwhile, along with tourism, Moroccan culture became an inevitable victim of heritagisation. There are some perceptive articles on the fate of Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh under the Intangible Cultural Heritage, such as

  • Thomas Schmitt, “Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech; changes to a social space and to a UNESCO masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as a result of global influence”, Arab world geographer 8.4 (2005), and
  • Thomas Beardslee, “Whom does heritage empower, and whom does it silence? Intangible Cultural Heritage at the Jemaa el Fnaa, Marrakech”, International journal of heritage studies 22.2 (2016).

General surveys include “Morocco” in The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians. And the article on Morocco in The Rough Guide to world music (Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, pp.567–78) provides an accessible introduction, covering both traditional and popular genres, including ritual gnaoua (latterly adapted to become flavour-of-the-month on the World Music scene—cf. final remark here), chaabi, and the Moroccan version of raï. Songlines also has regular coverage.

* * *

It was Bowles’s own reputation that was responsible in no small measure for attracting the hippies who began to descend on Tangier in the early 1960s, hot on the heels of the first-wave Beats. But as Sawyer-Lauçanno relates (pp.355–6):

This influx created a certain amount of alarm in the expatriate community, most of whom were fairly affluent, well established, and prone to anxiety about their status in Morocco, particularly since independence. William Burroughs commented that the established residents “all felt that the beatniks were endangering their own position, casting aspersions on the foreign colony. And the old settlers were terrified, outraged: ‘The first thing you know they’ll get us all thrown out.’ ” This panic extended to Bowles and Jane, as well. According to Burroughs, “Jane and [her partner] Cherifa were trying to cast a spell on the beatniks. Jane would say, ‘I don’t want to really hurt any of them, just make them a little sick so they’ll go away.’ They were all hysterical that way, particularly the Bowleses. Both of them were always worried that they were going to be thrown out.”

group 1961

Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Alan Ansen, Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, Tangier 1961.

Paul, always immaculately turned out, was less than enamoured with the beatnik invasion. Ironically, it was to his parents that he sent this prurient description:

Every day one sees more beards and filthy blue jeans, and the girls look like escapees from lunatic asylums, with white lipstick and black smeared around their eyes, and matted hair hanging around their shoulders. The leaders of the “movement” have made their headquarters here and direct their activities from here. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Burroughs are all established in Tangier now, sending out their publications from here.

Sawyer-Lauçanno goes on:

Despite his disparaging remarks and anxiety about deportation, Bowles made a distinction between the literary beatniks and what Burroughs terms “the lesser beats”, the hangers-on, the beatniks in style only. Indeed, during the early part of the 1960s, Bowles spent a good deal of time in the company of the “movement’s leaders”.

Given the unorthodoxy of their own tastes, all this may seem A Bit Rich… Chacun à son trou, surely.

Still, in the shadow of wartime trauma, when many were simply relieved to be able to tend the begonias of their suburban gardens in peace, I’m always impressed by such early explorers as Bowles. Some, like Gary Snyder, went in search of the wisdom of the Mystic East, while others were drawn to the Middle East and north Africa. But their engagement with folk culture varied.

I rarely presume to venture into the Islamic world, but see also here, and notably the Uyghur tag. For hand-clapping, see here.

[1] See also e.g.,,, and

Mozart for winds, and “genius”

Learning with the Hua band, 2001

Learning with the Hua band, 2001.

The specialisation of professional training in WAM tends to work as an obstacle to appreciating the broader soundscape. Of course as a fiddle player, taking part in The Rite of Spring, Bach, Mahler, or opera gave me ample opportunity to admire great wind playing and singing; but somehow it seemed impertinent, as if it was none of my business—”just play the dots”, do your job, like a factory worker or a soldier not privy to the grand design (cf. Ecstasy and drudge). Chamber music offers more personal input, but makes a less reliable food-bowl for most performers.

Studying world music inevitably broadens our horizons. However inept, my training in participant observation among Chinese ritual groups and shawm bands helped me focus on the artistry of a range of musicking outside my own expertise.

Returning to WAM, Mozart’s piano concertos are full of exquisite wind parts (see also here, and here). And during our time at Cambridge my ears were opened by Stephen Barlow conducting the astounding Serenade in C minor—here’s an earlier recording:

Such miraculous inspiration is movingly articulated in one of the great scenes from Amadeus (on the Gran partita):

Such wonders are not the exclusive preserve of WAM composers. As always, Bruno Nettl has wise words (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, pp.57–9):

“Musical genius”. It’s the term music lovers in Western culture use to describe their greatest creators of music in classical music and also in jazz (like Louis Armstrong). It is sometimes also used for key figures in the history of popular music (like the Beatles and Elvis Presley).

After unpacking the mythology of Mozart and Beethoven, Nettl compares similar figures in Carnatic music—notably Tyagaraja, also credited with divine inspiration. He goes on:

There certainly are many cultures that share the concept of musical genius on one way or another. Again in my experience, a kind of star system was there in the classical music of Iran in the mid-20th century,  where the line between stars and others was even more pronounced than in Europe, star performers being accorded relatively more status, artistic license, and money. The nonstars were readily ranked from acceptable to incompetent. What distinguishes the “stars” among the most significant creative musicians in Iran, the ones who excel in the improvisiatory section of the performance of a dastgah—the avaz—is their ability to do something new within strict confines.

And while technical virtuosity was less of an issue in my experience of the music of the Blackfoot people, outstanding singers and men who commanded large repertories of religious songs were singled out, but the role of musical culture hero seems to me to be most clearly associated with those men who, in times of the greatest adversity of the Blackfoot nation, tried to lead the tribe into some kind of acceptable future and did so by maintaining and teaching the people’s songs and dances.

He explores the issue further in Chapter 26 (see here, under “Music and learning”).

Anyway, while we naturally seek out the most outstanding bearers of tradition, yet as Christopher Small observed, musicking is a diverse social activity in which genius and virtuosity play only a limited part. Indeed, in both art and popular traditions they serve as something of a red herring; all kinds of performance events can be meaningful, and moving—from lullabies to a Dolly Parton gig.

Still, to return to inspired wind playing, I always relish Wu Mei‘s exquisite decorations of Daoist vocal liturgy, or Hua Yinshan’s searing and soaring shawm playing. See also jazz and trumpet tags—selection here.


Playing with history: HIP

*For main page, click here!*
(under WAM at the right of main menu)


On the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement, further to my article on Richard Taruskin, I’ve added a page on

  • John Butt, Playing with history (2002).

I’ve already mentioned Butt’s thoughts on performing the Bach Passions, as well as related posts like Bach and Daoist ritual and Alternative Bach.

Indeed, he expands on the ideas of Taruskin, rigorously unpacking the views of a wide range of pundits on both sides of the notional fence, surveying the HIP tendency in the broad context of 20th-century (and earlier) social and political change, philosophy, architecture, the Globe Theatre project, and the Heritage movement. So this is a far wider topic than “mere” music.

He notes affinities with ethnomusicology, and unpacks the history of “notational progress”—among his examples is Messiaen! Butt’s stimulating final chapter takes its title from Lucy Lippiard’s definition of retrochic:

  • “A reactionary wolf in countercultural sheep’s clothing”?—historical performance, the heritage industry and the politics of revival.

He points out antecedents earlier in the 20th century and much further back in history. Despite the growth of HIP following the disruption of war, Butt finds that the whole phenomenon is more complex than the “trauma thesis”, and that (as with Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement) it attracts people from a range of political stances.

In a thoughtful, generous, and optimistic investigation, he sees the HIP enterprise as

a starting point for experimentation, an opening of options that could not have been envisaged, rather than a form of closure that more strictly delimits the definition of a work or repertoire.

I conclude with some thoughts on China and its heritage industry, where such complex issues are barely recognized.


Alternative Bach


In a new three-part series on BBC Radio 3 (hurry!—only available for a limited time), harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani challenges mainstream ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong” in how Bach’s music is performed, with some fascinating early and recent recordings.

In Programme 1, “Traveller” (as a successive migrant himself, an evocative theme) after nods to Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, he includes Wanda Landowska, Leonid Kogan with Karl Richter, and Ralph Kirkpatrick; makes a case for a Karl Münchinger rendition (by which I am underwhelmed); and features the first-ever recording of  Bach’s early cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden—from 1931 Barcelona (pre-Franco), in Catalan.

Programme 2, “Outsiders”, features a 1946 Klemperer recording of Brandenburg 2, with the solo trumpet part on soprano sax (which to my ears is its only virtue), and Grigory Sokolov (though I don’t think anyone is claiming that you can’t play Bach on the modern concert piano). The Christ lag in Todesbanden theme continues with another rare Nadia Boulanger recording from 1937 (and in the years following World War 2, still before the “early music” movement, the cantata was among several to be performed and recorded).

Programme 3, “Innovators”, begins with Wendy Carlos on Moog synthesiser. This confuses me. I like the sound; the album has been praised for its “amazing sensitivity and finely wrought nuances, in timbre, tone, and expressiveness”, and Glenn Gould approved too. But I just hear mechanical metronomic monotony, devoid of nuance—or is that the point? Just as no-one said it’s enough to play old music on old instruments, it’s not enough to play it on new ones either. We also hear the curiosity of Emil Telmanyi’s misguided “Bach bow”; Sigiswald Kuijken playing the 6th cello suite; and Anner Bylsma on viola da gamba. Esfahani ends with Schoenberg’s 1928 arrangement of a Bach partita conducted by Essa-Pekka Salonen—and almost relevant here is the charming story of the board of the LA Phil succinctly dismissing the maestro’s choice of repertoire.

Of course, for innovations there’s a lot more potential material for further programmes, from Jacques Loussier and beyond. To complement my own rendition of the Goldberg variations and my many posts on stammering, here’s Uri Caine:

* * *

Much as I enjoyed the series, surely the notion of “authenticity” has become something of a straw (um) person—doctrinaire Ayatollahs are not so common in early music as outsiders imagine.

Indeed, I think most of this can be dispelled by reading Richard Taruskin and John Butt, and listening to John Eliot Gardiner’s renditions (even if the former has trenchant reservations about the latter). Fine as the recordings of Gardiner’s teacher Boulanger are, in the energy and intensity of his performances he develops her tradition with the benefit of later insights. Christ lag in Todesbanden has remained one of his signature pieces over several decades, always reinvigorated. Here’s their Easter recording from Eisenach during the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage:

For an introduction to the cantata, click here.

So questioning supposed orthodoxies still makes a stimulating theme, but I suspect we can now only appreciate early interpretations with the benefit of the bedrock of later HIP style, which has brought us so many invigorating new insights.

The post-war period that led to the establishment of so-called HIP orthodoxy in early music was one of great experimentation. It’s worth citing from John Eliot’s recollections of his studies with Boulanger and his own early experiments with period style (Music in the castle of heaven, pp.3–12):

The person who crystallized all these ideas for me was Nadia Boulanger, justly recognized as the most celebrated teacher of composition in the 20th century. When she accepted me as a student in Paris in 1967, she had just turned 80 and was partially blind, but with all her other faculties in tip-top order. […]

As he formed his own choir and orchestra at Cambridge, he was underwhelmed by the Bach style prevailing there:

How had the wonderfully exultant music that I had known since I was a child come to be treated in such a precious, etiolated way?

And he found the “oppressive volume and sheer aggression” of Karl Richter’s Munich performances “a world away from the mincing, ‘holy holy’ approach of King’s or the Bach Choir in London, but hardly more inspiriting.”

Here, as in most of the live performances or recordings that I had access to, Bach came over as grim, sombre, po-faced,  lacking in spirit, humour, and humanity. Where was the festive joy and zest of this dance-impregnated music?

He describes his early experiments with the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra, and how by 1978 they had “hit a brick wall”:

The fault was neither theirs nor mine, but that of the instruments we were using. However stylishly we played them, there was no disguising that they had been designed or adapted with a totally different sonority in mind, one closely associated with a late-19th- and early-20th-century (and therefore anachronistic) style of expression. With their wire- or metal-covered strings they were simply too powerful—and yet to scale things down was the very opposite of what this music, with its burgeoning, expressive range, called for. To unlock the codes in the musical language of these Baroque masters, to close the gap between their world and ours, and to release the well-spring of their creative fantasy meant cultivating a radically different sonority. There was only one thing for it: to re-group using original (or replica) Baroque instruments.

As he goes on to explain, “more intrepid pioneers” got there rather earlier. But such experiments were based not on orthodoxy but innovation, expression, joy.

People were quick to realize that there really is a difference in performance between those who are committed to re-making music and inhabiting it afresh, and those just bent on dispatching it with efficiency and technical skill.
As Richard Taruskin was quick to point out, sound scholarship does not necessarily result in good music-making. At a time when a fashion for “under-interpretation” was beginning to take hold in England among certain early-music practitioners, Taruskin was also one of the first to question what he called “the naive assumption that re-creating all the external conditions that obtained in the  original performance of a piece [excluding people’s ears, minds, bodies, and social conditions, of course!] will thus re-create the composer’s inner experience of the piece and allow him to ‘speak for himself’, that is, unimpeded by that base intruder, the performer’s subjectivity.” He also identified a danger in an over-reverential attitude to the concept of Werktreue (“truth to the work”), one that inflicts “a truly stifling regimen by radically hardening and patrolling what had previously been a fluid, easily crossed boundary between the performing and composing roles.”

In the UK and elsewhere in the 70s, the personnel of early and contemporary music scenes often overlapped (see here, under “Performance practice”)—both seeking to innovate, to escape the confines of received conventions.

Now, it’s great to rediscover the radical nature of early recordings, and I’d be the first to lament the bland auto-pilot knit-your-own-yogurt sackcloth-and-ashes of the HIP fringes. But Esfahani almost seems to be indulging in PC gone mad gone mad. The early music scene that evolved since the 1960s was anything but fusty: what drove musos to it was seeking to communicate with an energy that would speak to modern audiences. So, much as I like many of Esfahani’s examples, I like a lot of HIP renditions even more.

* * *

I’ve touched on related issues in several posts, linked in Reception history. On a lighter note, see here; and for vignettes on my days in the English Baroque Soloists, here and here.

Barbara Hannigan


Photo credit: Musacchio and Ianniellos.

Having been spellbound by the great Barbara Hannigan singing Let me tell you, as well as her f-f-flabbergasting Gepopo, I just attended another LSO concert in which she both sang and conducted in Berg and Berg-tinged Gershwin (programme notes here).

I became immersed in Berg’s first opera Wozzeck in my teens, but at last I got to hear Hannigan in a suite from Lulu, one of her signature roles. While only featuring two brief but mesmerizing arias, it gives a taster for the complexities of Lulu’s psyche.

Lulu has long seemed to embody all the inherited archetypes of diva/femme fatale, madonna/whore, victim, elfin waif, destroyer/destroyed (see also Madonna and McClary[1] and the “cute psychopath” of Killing Eve), both in the original Wedekind plays and Pabst’s 1929 (silent!) film Pandora’s box:

Hang on—these were all created by men…

All these myths may have gone largely unchallenged until quite recently, but Hannigan doesn’t buy it. So despite Lulu’s common image as abused, manipulated, and degraded, Hannigan finds her inspiring “as a musician, an actor, and a human being”, with her “instinctive emotional intelligence that tends to drive the people around her up the wall”; rather like her remoulding of Ophelia, she regards Lulu as the architect of her own destiny—angry, resistant, and triumphant. As Paul Griffiths wrote,

Hannigan sees her as a spirit of freedom, who breaks loose from the plays, the opera, and the films in which she would seem to be contained. Refusing taming or limits of any kind, she scorns death, even while longing for it. Murdered in one scenario, she simply finds herself another. She is a deity with innumerable avatars.

Hannigan makes her case brilliantly here—describing her passionate relationship with Lulu as well as her her own Stockholm syndrome and survivor guilt, and unpacking gender issues:

Now I welcome new visions, and changing reception history, but I’m still not sure we can simply “celebrate” the lives of women like Lulu without acknowledging the tragedy of their situation in societies where they are constantly hampered—and without keeping the iniquities of patriarchy to the fore (cf. China). Surely the role model here is not Lulu but Hannigan’s vision of her.

She ended the concert with an arrangement of Gershwin’s Girl crazy suite. At first one might think, uh-oh—not another cheesy crossover in the vein of “Dame Kiri Sings the Sex Pistols Greatest Hits by Candlelight“? Far from it: Hannigan “wanted to have a suite with songs from Gershwin musicals, but to look at them through the prism of the Second Viennese School, and especially from the perspective of Lulu and the Countess Geschwitz.”

As Griffiths observes, the link is by no means far-fetched:

Gershwin admired Berg and welcomed the opportunity of a meeting when the American was in Vienna in the spring of 1928. This was a year before Berg began work on Lulu, with its jazz-age touches, and two years before Gershwin was writing songs for Girl crazy. It might be hard to hear Berg’s influence in Gershwin’s own score, but that can be arranged. You just have to find an arranger.

Bill Elliott, who won a Tony award in 2015 for his orchestration of Gershwin’s music in a new show, An American in Paris, was an obvious first choice, and created a 13-minute score on which one could imagine the two composers had worked side by side. Berg sits back to admire the course of a melody Gershwin is writing, then leans forward to add harmonies here, a wandering counterpoint there. *

So the resulting suite, transforming But not for me, Embraceable you, and I got rhythm[2] makes a stimulating and exhilarating piece that inevitably gets a standing ovation. Here’s an earlier performance:

With her magical voice, her expressive arms, her whole body, Hannigan totally inhabits all her roles.


Photo credit: Jag Gundu.

Now we can also admire Hannigan’s recent Vienna fin-de-siècle CD, including Zemlinsky, Berg, and Alma Mahler. See also The rake’s progress.


* For good measure, a couple of quaint vignettes on Gershwin’s friendship with Berg’s teacher Schoenberg in the USA:

Gershwin asked Schoenberg—whom he also painted—for composition lessons. Schoenberg refused, reportedly saying “I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you’re such a good Gershwin already.”

And in a charming foretaste of the Monty Python Beethoven LP,

Gershwin enjoyed playing tennis with Schoenberg once a week. Gershwin’s playing was described as “nervous” and “nonchalant”, “relentless”, and “chivalrous”—while Schoenberg was “overly eager” and “choppy”.


[1] Indeed, Leo Treitler compares Madonna and Lulu in “The Lulu character and the character of Lulu”, ch.10 of his Music and the historical imagination (1989). For a general introduction to the opera, see Alex Ross, The rest is noise, pp.224–31.

[2] Hiromi‘s manic piano version of the latter is amazing, but I always fantasize about a Bulgarian aksak version…

An American musician in 1920s’ China

The great Yang Yinliu (1899–1984) (whose work is essential for an understanding of Chinese culture!) was brought up in the city of Wuxi amidst an environment of Kunqu, qin, and Daoist ritual.

In August 1921, the composer and violinist Henry Eichheim (爱希汉, 1870–1942), with his wife and daughter, made a journey to Wuxi to visit the great Wu Wanqing 吴畹卿 (1847–1927), leader of the prestigious Tianyun she 天韻社 Kunqu society, which dated back to the late Ming. Wu now arranged a series of seven private evening concerts for Eichheim. [1]

Apart from the main programme of unstaged Kunqu, the hosts performed solos for qin and pipa, “silk-and-bamboo” ensemble pieces—and Shifan gu and Shifan luogu, staple instrumental components of the local Daoists’ ritual repertoire, which Yang Yinliu was later to document in two definitive monographs. (Note how I avoided the dangerous term “Daoist music” there!) [2]

Shifan gu and Shifan luogu under the more monitored conditions of Maoism.

The concerts ended with Eichheim himself playing a selection of WAM violin pieces accompanied by his wife on piano—I can’t find a list of items, but I like to imagine that they included Kreisler’s Tambourin chinois (1910).


Yang Yinliu, undated early photo. Source: Yang Yinliu jinian wenji.

Among the musicians that Wu Wanqing assembled was his pupil Yang Yinliu, still only 22. Already a pupil of the American missionary Louise Strong Hammond, he now served as translator for Eichheim.

After trips to Japan, Korea, and India, Eichheim returned alone to a snowy Wuxi in December that year to hear more Shifan luogu. As Yang recalled,

I asked why he wanted to hear shi-fan-luo-gu again. He said that in the intervening months he had travelled to many countries, but this is the music that impressed him the most.

They played from 2 to 7.30pm, before Yang took Eichheim to the train station to rejoin his wife and daughter in India.

Later he also made trips to Indonesia. He was among many composers inspired by the soundscape of the Mystic East, including Ravel and Colin McPhee (but not Berlioz…)—though the influence of gamelan in his works, such as his symphonic variations Bali (1931), is not always audible.

Eichheim’s instrument collection is now housed at USCB. I wonder if any further records, such as photographs, survive of his visits to Wuxi. If only there were recordings! Perhaps it would be too much to expect Yang Yinliu to have taken him to film the rituals of the Daoists…

For Eichheim in Japan, click here.

[1] See my Folk music of China, p.248 (amidst an introduction to the Shifan genres, pp.252–69), and Peter Micic, “Gathering a nation’s music”, p.96, both based on Yang Yinliu, Shifan luogu (1980), pp.233–4. In my post on Yang I cited his earlier volume with Cao Anhe on Shifan gu. For the Tianyun she, see also Zhongguo xiqu zhi, Jiangsu juan 中国戏曲志, 江苏卷 p.726. Note also my lengthy review “Images of Abing”, British Journal of Ethnomusicology 6 (1997). For more on Eichheim, see Anthony Sheppard, Extreme exoticism: Japan in the American musical imagination (2019), ch.3.

[2] Despite my aversion to the term “Daoist music”, two volumes by Qian Tieming 錢鐵明 et al., Wuxi daojiao keyi yinyue yanjiu 無錫道教科儀音樂研究 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 1999) are substantial. Still, there is a wealth of research on Daoist ritual around the Jiangnan region that doesn’t pluck soundscape out of its ritual context—notably in recent years from Tao Jin 陶金 in Suzhou, Shanghai, and so on: note Roundup of posts on south Jiangsu.

Another fine female composer


Today—all day—is another great reason to tune in to BBC Radio 3 for their fantastic selection of female composers, part of their ongoing commitment to the topic. So much fine music to explore… (for my 2017 post, see here).

Yet another coup this week was their broadcast of Céphale et Procris, a tragédie en musique by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665–1729).

The opera was first staged in 1694—just as a Chinese monk was copying a numinous score of the shengguan ritual ensemble repertoire in Beijing. In Paris, Jacquet kept composing despite losing her young son, her husband, and her brother.

After only a few performances, the opera wasn’t heard again until the 1990s. But it sounds wonderful.

Following Lully, her soundworld often anticipates Rameau, including the tragic final sequence, and this aria from Act IV, Funeste mort:

Where have I been? * (And perhaps you—unless you’re more au fait with the niceties of French baroque than me.) I now find that YouTube is awash with Jacquet’s works. For now I’ll cite from her wiki entry:

Her talent and achievements were acknowledged by Titon du Tillet, who accorded her a place on his Mount Parnassus when she was only 26 years old, next to Lalande and Marais and directly below Lully. A quote from Titon du Tillet describes her

marvellous facility for playing preludes and fantasies off the cuff. Sometimes she improvises one or another for a whole half hour with tunes and harmonies of great variety and in quite the best possible taste, quite charming her listeners.

So let’s all explore Jacquet de La Guerre’s ouevre—harpichord pieces, trio sonatas, cantatas!

For leads to some other female baroque composers, see here. For 20th-century French female composers on this blog, see Lili Boulanger and Germaine Tillion. So many names to add to the T-shirt


* “Nobody tells me anything”—and there was I thinking I’d discovered an unknown singer called Aretha Franklin

Das Land ohne Musik


Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912. More here.

Das Land ohne Musik

Oscar Schmitz, 1914

There is no city in the world, I am sure, where so much music is consumed as in London.

Hector Berlioz, 1851

Susan McClary’ s book Feminine endings is always full of leads, such as:

Linda Austern and Richard Leppert have demonstrated that one reason the English have produced so little music is that they—more than their German or French neighbors—have long associated music with effeminacy. (p.17)

An intriguing thought, but it begs questions. First of all, “produced” here clearly refers to the composition of art music. A perceptive essay is

  • Peter Holman,* “Eighteenth-century English music: past, present, future” (ch.1 of David Wyn Jones (ed.), Music in eighteenth-century Britain, 2000),

where he tellingly probes the description of 18th-century England as “Das Land ohne Musik” (cf. Haydn). He dates it back further to a pithy 1840 comment by Heinrich Heine:

These people [the English] have no ear, either for rhythm or music, and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is thus all the more repulsive. Nothing on earth is more terrible than English music, save English painting.

Touché! As Holman notes,

Of course, this agenda is part of a larger one that has more to do with 19th-century cultural politics than with a proper, balanced evaluation of the total corpus of 18th-century music. It privileged what was perceived as as the centre—Italy, Germany, and Austria— over the supposed periphery—Scandinavia, eastern and central Europe, France, the Iberian peninsula, and England. It privileged instrumental music, especially those genres that used Viennese sonata form, over vocal music. And it privileged the work of the professional secular male in concert music over all others, such as church musicians, amateurs, and women.
The most persistent observation on musical life in 18th-century England is that it was dominated by Handel and other immigrant composers, the implication being that native composers were too feeble, parochial, or conservative to offer them much competition.

OK, he’s broadly following the continental critics here in equating “musical life” with art music—not all the diverse folk traditions, such as the musical life of taverns in East Anglia. But he unpacks the assumptions of even this limited definition:

It was not a new situation. Immigrants had played an important role in bringing new ideas from the continent ever since the reign of Henry VII. (See Wind, ethnicity, and gender, and They come over ‘ere…)

Adducing Ferrabosco, Notari, and Draghi, Holman notes that that as the scale of immigration increased,

these developments were not symptoms of weakness or decline, but evidence of a vibrant and complex musical life. Musicians were not attracted to London from all over Europe by the prospect of becoming big fish in a small, stagnant pond, but because London was the largest and most exciting pond of all, where you did not need to be a big fish to make a fortune.

Indeed, it could be argued that England was the most musical country in Europe by the second half of the 18th century, judging by the amount of musical activity of all types.

The variety he cites here includes rival concert series, Italian opera, provincial music societies, church choirs, and amateur musicking such as “gentlemen” competing in taverns. This is indeed more diverse than the narrow picture he criticizes, but still doesn’t subsume “folk” activity such as sea shanties or street fiddlers. He goes on:

My second objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that there is little sign that immigrants replaced native musicians in lucrative employment, or prevented them from obtaining it.

Just as the Lupo and Bassano families had supplemented indigenous instrumentalists at the court of Henry VIII, Italian opera became just an extra strand enriching the musical life of London. But

My most serious objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that it is based on an anachronistic conception of national and racial identity. […] England has always been a nation of immigrants, and it makes no sense to restrict an account of its culture to the work of natives, or, more accurately, to the work of the descendants of less recent immigrants.
What is often forgotten is that immigrant composers, anxious to be accepted in England, adapted their own idioms to conform to English taste.

This is all grist to Stewart Lee‘s mill.

At the same time, the “foreign domination” theory does rest to a large extent on the focus on the composers and performers of art music. Despite my pleas to broaden the social scope, Holman’s perspective, like a lot of in-depth studies of WAM, belongs firmly within the wise counsels of ethnomusicology. His chapter contains many more perceptive observations, which you must read!

* * *

To return to McClary’s lead,

  • Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (1987)

is full of stimulating chapters, not least her own:

  • “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”,

which I introduced here. As the book’s Introduction notes, recent changes in scholarship,

especially evident in literature, film, and visual art, have led to a systematic investigation of the implicit assumptions underlying critical methods of the last two-hundred years, including prominently the assumption that art consistutes an autonomous sphere, separate and isolated from the outside social world.

Janet Wolff’s Foreword is another nail in the coffin of “autonomous” art—and another critique that should be compulsory for heritage pundits in China. The book ranges rather widely, with chapters from Rose Subotnik on Chopin, Simon Frith on popular music, John Shepherd on music and male hegemony, John Mowitt on electric technology in sound production, and Leppert’s own discussion of the music, domestic life, and cultural chauvinism of British subjects in India.

The authors point out that they hardly deal with music and society in non-Western cultures, touching “only lightly on questions about the music of women, and ethnic and racial minorities”. They observe that women, and the lower classes, have been erased from the received picture, though they are rarely excluded from musicking—just from prestigious public musicking.

So again the book is largely based on the musical activities of the bourgeoisie—not least because the source material largely derives from them. Still, the debt to ethnomusicology is clear: even if WAM scholarship may seem to contrast with ethnomusicology, they can enter into a rapprochement [uh-oh, more non-national terms?—Ed.].

* * *

Actually, all we need to deflate the idea of Das Land ohne Musik is the classic question “What is music?“—or rather, “What is musicking?”. Pundits of both WAM and pop music tend to take a limited view, as I often observe (e.g. here, and here).

By a narrow definition based on composers of art music, most of the world over most of history would be considered “without music”. Do mothers singing lullabies, spirit mediums, or percussion bands, count? Even once we’ve thrown out the narrow assumption that music means art music, I wonder how one might rank the cultures of the world in terms of “musicality”: Inuit, Italian, Andalucian, Tibetan, Bolivian, Malian, Afghan, and so on. Were Afghans or Andalucians “unmusical”, and are they now? And we may be lumbered with the dodgy cliché that Africans, like Chinese ethnic minorities, are “good at singing and dancing”—but where might north Americans come in the spurious league table, for instance?

Cultural genocide—the suppression of indigenous cultures by a dominant force—is a separate subject. As I write this, I notice this blurb for what I’m sure is a fine BBC4 programme:

Masters of the Pacific coast: the tribes of the American northwest
Exploring how culture was established on the American northwest.

Discuss… An inspiration for the Party’s current replacement of the complexities of Uyghur music by “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” (note also this post)?

Is a society in which most people frequently sing or dance less musical than one with an opera house, a symphony orchestra, and a conservatoire? “Expenditure on the arts” is a dubious index. Is a funding-dependent society in which children are discouraged from singing and dancing unless they’re formally trained as musical as one where such activity is assumed, embedded in the culture? Indeed, even in such a culture, formally-trained musicians make up only a small proportion of participants.

As always, it’s worth considering the wise words of Bruno Nettl, in his

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

He addresses the issue of “what is music?” —a point also made by Christopher Small in his introduction to Musickingin a famous vignette in his chapter 2, “Combining tones: the concept of music”:

Let me reconstruct a cocktail party conversation about 1975 when I confessed to working in ethnomusicology. “Studying American Indian music?” says one amazed person. “I didn’t know they even had music”. I try patiently to explain. “Oh yes, I knew they had chants, but is that really music?” From an elderly gentleman: “I spent a year in Africa, heard a lot of singing and drumming, but is that music? After all, they don’t write it down. Maybe they just make it up as they go along. Do they really know what they’re doing?” More explanation. A young man has added himself. “But these sounds that some peoples in Asia make with their instruments and voices, or the Indian chants, can you call them music? They don’t have harmony.” And a middle-aged lady: “My teenage sons play something they call music all day. I can’t stand any of it.”

We might now wonder if Nettl was going to the wrong kind of parties; indeed, he notes that people may have since become more broad-minded, but the issue remains. He discusses John Blacking’s important book How musical is man? (1973):

writing today, he would likely have asked “How musical are humans?” […] He recognized the world as a group of musics, though he personally was always more interested in their borderlands than the centers, but he wanted to make sure that his readers understood a major point: in the end, all musics are equally valuable, or, let’s put it this way, all musics are to an equal degree music.

Nettl’s whole book explores such themes—essential reading! Even his models for types of cultural change may be instructive to understand the fates of native American and Uyghur cultures.


Billy Purvis (1784–1853).

So the Land ohne Musik slight rests on a blinkered valorization of a league table of Great Works by Great Composers, rather than the diverse forms of musicking in society generally. Ironically, it’s based on new music.

As to England being ohne Musik in 1914 (or indeed 1714), never mind all the WAM activity then, how about all the traditions then being unearthed by Cecil Sharp and Co.—singing, local dance traditions, street music, wind bands? In the narrow view, none of these seem to count.

Issues here include the balance of “active” producers and “passive” consumers, amateur and occupational performers. What of a society which expects to invite performers often, as in Hokkien cultures in southeast China; or one where people simply attend a lot of parties?

Music does seem more ubiquitous than ever today: not just via technology (over speakers in malls and, um, elevators), but actively: both listening to recorded music most of the time, and active musicking at all kinds of social events, including clubbing, places of worship, and football matches.

So never mind 1730s’ Leipzig or 1780s’ Vienna, how about Liverpool and Detroit in the 1960s, or Herat in the 1970s—or Beijing, New York, and London today? I’m not exactly disputing the notion that some societies may be more “musical” than others, but attempting to compile a league table of world musicality would ultimately be a cul-de-sac. Whether for the 18th century or today, it’d take a thorough broad-based survey of soundscapes to assess all this—one fine example of the broad view is Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 The hidden musicians, on musical life in Milton Keynes.

At least, people don’t wait for composers (whether indigenous or foreign) to write symphonies and operas to express their musicality. All this may seem obvious, but people still tend to stick within their particular tribes.

By the way, I constantly dispute the narrow dominance of one particular limited view of what constitutes “Chinese music”. I’ve given many instances of the narrow dominance of the conservatoire style and commercial pop; but punk, all kinds of vocal music along the continuum from folk-song to opera, spirit mediumshousehold Daoists, shawm and percussion bands, and so on, are all part of the picture we have to consider—as for any society in the world, for any period. Yet again, we should delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse

* This is neither here nor there, but it was on tour with Peter that Paul O’Dette told me the hemiola story


Janáček and Moravian folk


Leoš Janáček‘s Sinfonietta (1926) may be a great orchestral showpiece, but it’s complex and stimulating. It also links nicely to several of my themes:

  • His music is another reminder of the centrifugal variety around the peripheries of European art music
  • Since Janâček dedicated the piece to the “Czechoslovak Armed Forces”, this classic story from my mentor Paul Kratochvil is highly apposite
  • It makes a fine addition to the variety of posts grouped under the trumpet tag
  • It further illustrates the use of additive rhythms
  • And the timpani part, like the snare-drum in Nielsen 5, is another that I have earmarked to be played by Li Manshan
  • See also my post on Hašek and Kundera (and for yet more, including more Švejk, the Czech tag).

Tom Service always makes a good guide (and do watch his link to Jakub Hrůša’s musical tour of Brno).

This is music that Janâček wanted ideally to be played by a military band like the one he’d heard a few years prior to the composition of Sinfonietta, and whose music he wrote down in the composing notebook he took everywhere with him. If you had to perform the Sinfonietta without a military ensemble, Janâček said (as it almost always is in concert halls these days), make sure the brass players sound as rough, brash, and bright as an army band.
On one hand, the jump-cuts and juxtapositions of Janâček’s music, the way he repeats little cells of music and then without warning moves to a new idea, means that you experience a continuous sense of surprise and suspense when you hear this piece. That kind of cinematic editing and shuffling of musical time seems to be the opposite of the conventional symphonic principle, substituting a logic of surreal colours, unpredictable textures and even less predictable timing for the development, argument, and discourse of proper symphonic behaviour.

Among a host of spectacular recordings of the Sinfonietta we could go with S-Simon yet again, like this 2018 concert with the LSO:

Since Charles Mackerras was a great champion of Janáček’s music, I was going to suggest his version (not least to remind you his wonderful anagram, Slasher M. Earcrack); but for some historical depth how about this one, with Czech performers—just after the war and Communist takeover, as musicians and audiences must have been anxiously awaiting life-changing measures wrought by their new leaders:

And here’s a 1961 recording with Karel Ančerl, who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz:

The Sinfonietta makes a glorious prelude to exploring the riches of Janáček’s music—operas, chamber music, and so on.

* * *

Please excuse me for returning to folk music, but it was a major inspiration for composers throughout central and east Europe, like Bartók. Along with pioneers like František Sušil and František Bartoš, Janáček collected Moravian folk culture keenly, long before Kundera dissected the way it was distorted under Communist rule.


Janáček collecting folksongs on 19th August 1906 in Strání.

In my overview of musical cultures of east Europe I neglected Polish, Czech, and Slovak traditions—projects for another time. Many of those features that Service notes—the use of cells, jump-cuts, shuffling—must relate to Janáček’s background exploring the rhythms and textures of peasant life.

Again, the Rough Guide to world music makes a starting point, under “Czech and Slovak republics”. Janáček’s own recordings have been reissued on the CD

  • The oldest recordings of folk-singing from Moravia and Slovakia, 1909–1912 (Gnosis, Brno).

See also

  • Barbara Krader, “Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.178–85


  • Magda Ferl Zelinská and Edward J.P. O’Connor, “Czech Republic and Slovakia”, in The Garland encylopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe.



Musical cultures of imperial north China

Navigational aid for fans of late imperial Chinese history: here’s a roundup of posts on musicking in the Qing—not only at the Beijing court but further afield, looking beneath the tip of the iceberg.

But of course, we shouldn’t focus narrowly on defunct genres, or cling to simplistic notions of  “art” and “court” cultures. Notwithstanding social change, all the living local ritual traditions I study have been transmitted virtually continuously since the Ming and Qing among folk groups (“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside“). This doesn’t mean that we can neatly relegate them to “history”: the study of all kinds of expressive cultures also involves fieldwork on their fortunes since the collapse of the imperial system, with ethnography and oral history becoming more fruitful than library study.

Still, Like Life, one thing leads to another. More generally, early Western contacts with Chinese music are the subject of a wider range of research from scholars both in China and abroad (see comment below).

Soundscapes of Nordic noir


Nordic noir on screen is all very fine (see Saga and Sofia!); but on Thursday I went to hear an inspiring (rather than bleak) wintry concert at the Barbican, with the spellbinding combo of Barbara Hannigan (see also here) and S-S-Simon Rattle programme notes here).

At the heart of the concert was Hans Abrahamsen’s magical let me tell you (2013), with lyrics by Paul Griffiths. It has already become a classic among orchestral song cycles—to follow Nuits d’été and Shéhérazade, the Wesendonck and Altenberg lieder, the Rückert liederand the Four last songs.

I don’t need to add to all the praise (reviews here), but as well as the three creators discussing the piece, do also watch Hannigan’s own reflections:

As she suggests, this re-imagining of Ophelia’s monologue is enriched by the following 500 years of female experience. With her utterance at once fragile and resolute, the result is not bleak but luminous. And Hannigan is just mesmerizing on stage, embodying the role—one of the great singers (see also my Playlist of songs).

The cycle was also part of the CBSO Prom in 2016 (from 11.00), with the excellent Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla conducting:

At the Barbican the other day Let me tell you was sandwiched [Aww, no smorgasbord?—Ed.]* between two challenging symphonies, which S-Simon conducted from memory. He describes Sibelius 7 (1924, one of his last works before he devoted himself more single-mindedly to the bottle) as “almost like a scream” (cf. Mahler 10). (Sibelius makes a flimsy pretext to remind you of this post on Finno–Ugric musicking).


Nielsen aged about 14.

Carl Nielsen’s 4th symphony (“The inextinguishable”, or even Det uudslukkelige) (1916), like his 5th (for whose snare-drum part I hereby nominate Li Manshan), is a battle with chaos. Though Denmark wasn’t directly touched by the war, its echoes are clear. But again, with its incandescent ending in E major (cf. Bruckner 7 and the home key of Chinese ritual wind ensembles!), the overall mood is far from bleak.

To harp (nyckelharpa? Another world fiddle for our list) on the folk angle, whereas other composers like Bartók approached their local traditions as outsiders, Nielsen came from a poor peasant background as a brass player and traditional fiddler on the island of Funen.

Getting to know both the music of Sibelius and Nielsen in my teens thanks to enterprising amateur orchestras, I must have been vaguely aware of Nordic gloom, but in my callow youth I suspect I heard “classical music” as a monolith, hardly discerning regional, temporal, or personal diversity.

The concert made an evening that was both disorienting and inspiring. Live performances by Barbara Hannigan are not to be missed.

* SJ: Not today, but I can offer you “pining for the Fjordiligis”.

Musicking at the Qing court 2: Pedrini and Amiot

pedrini 2

To return to my fantasy of Bach at the 18th-century Beijing court (see—and hear!—The Feuchtwang variations), the musicking of the European missionaries there makes an intriguing tangent to the varied material on all the diverse forms of musicking at the Qing court (a list to which I’ve now added Manchu shamans).

An authority here is François Picard (list of publications here, including this useful summary of relevant works—and note his CDs, introduced below).

Jesuit missionaries had established themselves as early as 1589 at the Ming court, and continued to find favour at the Qing courts of Kangxi and Qianlong. As Picard explains:

Their strategy was to convert the Chinese to Christianity, starting from the top. They did this, first of all, by demonstrating their status as experts and thus gaining access to the court; they then aimed to prove the superiority of the West, of Christendom, and therefore—syllogism—of Christianity, in the realms of science, astronomy, cartography, measurement, and music, the study of which belonged to the field of scholarship in both civilizations. Acoustics, instrument-making, notation, and performance were all part of that strategy of integration, competition, and persuasion.

Following Matteo Ricci (1562–1610), Adam Schall von Bell (1591–1666), and Ferdinand Verbiest (1623–88), Tomàs Pereira (1645–1708; for a range of studies, see here) is notable for his major compilation for the Kangxi emperor on the theory of Western (art!) music. This was completed by the Lazarist priest Teodorico Pedrini (1671–1746), who, reaching Beijing in 1711 (after an epic eight-year journey that puts the travails of British train commuters in perspective)* was active there along with Florian Bahr (1706–71) and Jean Walter (1708–59). Pereira and Pedrini are further discussed by several scholars, including Joyce Lindorff and Peter Allsop (e.g. here). The Jesuit priest Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–93) arrived in Beijing in 1751.

Even transporting the keyboard instruments was a mind-boggling task for the missionaries. While they were braving such obstacles, Bach’s long-term residency in Leipzig was bearing fruit in a constant stream of creation.

François Picard’s work bears fruit in his collaboration with Jean-Christophe Frisch and his ensemble XVIII-XXI Musique des Lumières, notably an enterprising series of CDs—with contributions from the Fleur de Prunus ensemble and the choir of the Centre Catholique Chinois de Paris, and instructive liner notes with further references.

While the missionaries were not mainly concerned with documenting or performing Chinese music, Amiot notated some Chinese melodies, and some canticles were set to Chinese texts.

The Congregation of Musicians of the Northern Church in Beijing, numbering about thirty young musicians, including several Manchu princes, would accompany important celebrations, the most spectacular of which was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.


Liuyejin, in gongche solfeggio with stave transnotation, Amiot 1754.

Some of Amiot’s Divertissements chinois, based on Kunqu melodies, are imaginatively recreated with Chinese instruments on the CD

  • Teodorico Pedrini: concert baroque à la cité interdite (Auvidis, 1996)

Here’s a playlist:

Other CDs in the project include

  • Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718-1793), Messe des jésuites de Pékin (Auvidis, 1998)
  • Chine: jésuites et courtisanes (Buda Records/Musique du monde, 2002)
  • Vêpres à la Vierge en Chine (2004)

In the chamber items with both baroque and Chinese instruments, the timbres blend well—and would do so even better had the latter been set up in 18th-century fashion, with silk or gut strings.

All this makes an intriguing if inconclusive exploration of elements: whereas ornamentation is common to both traditions, it’s more of a challenge to reconcile Chinese heterophony with the harmonic basis of baroque music. Amiot didn’t take the “superiority” of his musical culture for granted—Picard cites a perceptive passage:

Here, there is neither bass, not tenor, nor treble, everything is in unison, but that unison is varied according to the nature and capacity of each instrument [what we now call heterophony! SJ], and the composer’s skill, the beauty of the piece and the whole art of music lies in that variation. […] It would be of no avail to endeavour to prove to the Chinese that they must find pleasure in something in which they really find none at all.

In Picard’s notes for the Chine: jésuites et courtisanes CD he cites some contemporary reports relevant to the “suite-plucking” of the nobility, such as notes by courtier Gao Shiqi:

[The Kangxi emperor] ordered the ladies of the palace to play a melody, hidden behind a folding screen. He then said: “The people of the palace are excellent with string instruments (xiansuo).” He ordered his courtiers to show their art and successively play the hupo, pipa, and sanxianzi string instruments. He then said: “Play the qin piece “On the beach the geese are landing” (Pingsha luoyan) on the four string instruments—hupo, pipa, xianzi, and zheng—together.”

Adding female nobles to our list of performers, the emperor went on:

“The ladies of the palace have played the zheng zither since their childhood, to the point of forgetting to eat or sleep.** After ten years of efforts, they have attained sheer mystery [cf. Shenqi mipu].” He then ordered them to play “The moon is high” in a “changing tonality” (Bianyin yuer gao).

For more excursions in Qing ritual culture, see here.

* * *

To return to my Bach fantasy, European art music performed by European musicians at the Chinese court is a perfectly valid topic. It’s a welcome clue to early Chinese exposure to Western music, which from the late 19th century would become a major and more pervasive theme. And Amiot’s arrangements of Chinese melodies may have been performed by Chinese musicians. But while it’d be nice to think of European missionaries learning Chinese style, whether on Chinese fiddles (tiqin, sihu) or on violin, I can’t see any evidence; their contacts with the broader society, and indeed their tastes, were circumscribed.

Of course, world music “fusion” in China goes back to the Tang dynasty and earlier. But in the Qing, even within the rarefied milieu of the court, and despite the efforts of the missionaries, I find little evidence of more significant interaction, such as Chinese performing European music on Chinese instruments or Europeans taking part in Chinese ensembles.

For the Vêpres à la Vierge CD I took part, implausibly, on baroque violin, erhu and shawm—but I never quite knew whom I was impersonating (an imaginary missionary, either steeped in Chinese style or not? Perhaps even a Chinese Catholic convert keen to bury his musical heritage beneath superior Western learning?!). My ears conditioned by exposure to living Chinese traditions that often go back beyond the Qing, I found our experiments tentative; we were on firmer ground with the purely Western items, which now sound more successful to me. Later in a couple of concerts I began doing some semi-chinoiserie noodling on the two types of fiddles (miantiao? tagliatelle?) that I, at least, found a bit more satisfying; but I still couldn’t work out who I was—me, I guess.

Anyway, I was content to get back to my work with the living folk ritual groups of Hebei and Shanxi—where besides indigenous traditions, Christian groups had come to adopt their own local shengguan wind ensembles for ritual observances.

Catholics in rural Shanxi—left: Wenshui, 1933 (see South Gaoluo: the Catholics);
right: Xinzhou, Shanxi, 1992 (see Shanxi, summer 1992).

* * *

For such imaginative cross-cultural time-travelling excursions, one might compare several projects on baroque music in Latin and south America, and the fine project of Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI on the routes of slavery:

—in line with their previous work on medieval music, such as their versions of the medieval estampies (better received than ours…)

* * *

In these two posts on the Qing court I’ve given just two instances of the great variety of musicking there. As you know, I don’t go in much for recreations. While such experiments are imaginative, as Taruskin reminds us, the whole social and aesthetic framework in which we experience them—our very ears—are quite different (see e.g. Bach and Daoist ritual); we can only hear them for what they are: our creative response, for our own tastes in our modern societies.

* Since this post entails historical re-enactment, many would doubtless welcome the nomination of Transport Minister Chris “Failing” Grayling to retrace Pedrini’s route.

** I dunno, these teenage kids on their mobiles, Typical!—Ed.

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!