I generally go to some lengths to avoid Beethoven, my wariness confirmed by Susan McClary. I grew up on his late string quartets, but I hardly know the piano sonatas, so Op.109 (1820) came as a revelation. While its improvisatory quality clearly suits Grimaud, to me the manic contrasts of the first two movements often sound like an ADHD diagnosis; but the final movement, with its variations on a tranquil, intense theme (Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung—in the incandescent key of E major, to boot), is a real apotheosis. Here’s her 1999 recording of the movement:
She has a particular affinity with Brahms, and continued with the “private musings” of his late works from 1892–93 (for some reason I’ve always thought of Brahms as mid-century, but the symphonies are from the 1870s and 1880s, and he knew Mahler). First the Three intermezzi, “lullabies in all but name”:
And then after an interval, the Seven fantasias, a contrasting series of intermezzos and capriccios—the fifth movement particularly haunting for me:
In 1877 Brahms had adapted Bach’s monumental solo violin Chaconne (featured here) for piano (left hand—cf. Ravel!). Instead, Grimaud segued from the Seven fantasias into Busoni’s 1893 arrangement of the Chaconne, which I mentioned under Alternative Bach. Here she plays it live in 2001:
Lastly as encores for the rapturous audience she played Rachmaninoff and Silvestrov—the latter part of her latest project.
Averse as I am to the whole mystique of “Pianism”, Hélène Grimaud joins a cohort of celestial musicians of yore for whom the piano is merely a vessel; ** she vanishes deep inside the music, leading us with her. While she’s a devotee of rubato, her playing is unadorned and serious, eschewing mere virtuosity, never glamorising the music. The mood set by her languid stroll on and off stage (gliding, dreamy but not casual—roaming the clouds), once seated at the piano she plays for herself, as if we are but eavesdroppers. To hear her is one of life’s great blessings.
In my current liminal state while my house is being renovated, apart from enjoying my local library, I’ve got back to playing Bach on the violin. One hopes it’ll be like riding a bicycle, and so it turns out (wobbly). Among several fine musos’ excuses, most apt is
It was in tune when I bought it!
All I need is the Bach cello suites; indeed, maybe they’re all we need in Life… I’m less tempted to return to the violin suites—apart from memories of struggling over them through my teens, they’re just harder! OK, one day I’ll get back to the Chaconne.
First stage is to refresh my memory. The cello and alto clefs are mostly under my fingers by now, though it can be a bit like driving in Birmingham, going round in circles till I find the right exit—so with my sheet music currently buried in boxes I occasionally resort to online scores.
I’m playing my modern violin at the moment, tuned down a tone, with a gut “E” string. I use my baroque bow occasionally, but it doesn’t feel quite right with the modern violin. A good rosin discipline makes all the difference HELLO, although it’s not so frequently applied as chalk in snooker…
I continue developing an arcane system of bowings, often designing slurs (and fingerings too) to reflect conjunct melodic movement, particularly semitone intervals. This varies according to my mood, as it should do, but I like to have a template. Arpeggiated passages are good practice for string crossings. And then, after all the nitty-gritty, it has to sound natural and organic… As opposed to writing or listening, what’s great about expressing such nuance is that it’s more of an immersive physical process than a mental exercise, potentially like the riaz of north Indian raga (see Neuman, chapter 2).
* * *
Apart from the cello suites, I’m also relearning the A minor flute Allemande. I greatly admire the hieratic feel of David Tayler’s metronomic lute version, allowing the note permutations to speak for themselves; but working out bowings and fingerings on the violin, this is the kind of thing that I’m internalising, without having to annotate it like this:
This may seem a bit, um, fiddly, even Irish—so having worked out these patterns, I try not to let them get in the way.
Anyway, it feels great to Become One with the instrument again [Again?—Ed.], getting it in tune, and indeed with myself. During the interval from playing I’ve been absorbing a lot of music of all kinds—more Bach, kemenche, dhrupad (which I’d love to learn to sing, but that seems too ambitious), and so on. Still, I find myself hampered by my classical upbringing, feeling little need to rework Bach’s old notes into my own—far from a young sax player, who might have a similar reverence for Coltrane but will always create something new. Indeed, Bach improvised on Bach, and so do organists today. Me, I’m just trying to remember how to play the violin…
Like the Great Plague and the Cultural Revolution, the Coronation is history, whether we like it or not. My flimsy excuse for adding to the endless discussions is that it reminded me of China—the role of Daoist and Buddhist ritual in propping up the status quo, and the way that peasants too buy into the “imperial metaphor” (see also Catherine Bell on ritual, including state ritual). I can be mildly impressed by the opulence of grand Chinese or Ottoman ceremonies, but being English I have more of a right to query the validity of our own.
The Anglican Church—another irrelevance to a growing segment of the population—plays a major role in “legitimising” the charade of the Divine Right. Yet again Monty Python and the Holy Grail comes to mind:
I didn’t know we ’ad a king—I thought we were an autonomous collective.
Awed deference is only to be expected from the BBC, toeing the Party line, but even on Channel 4 interviewees mustered platitudes, with Cathy Newman making a futile effort to feed them with alternative viewpoints. Nor could one expect usually sensible critics of irrational power like Justin Welby to demur. “Defender of all faiths” my arse. The only clue to God’s feelings on the matter came from the way it rained on the parade.
Still, nothing can detract from the sheer exhilaration of Zadok the Priest—tastefully reworked by Andrew Lloyd Webber in a benign gesture of inclusivity:
Zak the Used-Car Dealer and Nat the Bruiser (know wot I’m sayin’, right) bigged up Solly King of Da Hood, YO
Coming back for more after the Queen’s funeral, many of the riff-raff, or “subjects” (including young and poor people) may have found the display of privilege utterly irrelevant, but others took time away from their “rather gratifying” food banks (apudThe Haunted Pencil) to play their own dress-up with hats and bunting—Bread and Circuses.
After all, since Brexit we’re all rolling in money, eh? But the royals aren’t exactly short of a few bob—benefit claimants with the brass neck to go on about “service”. Service my arse. Bending over backwards to feign balance, another Guardian piece concluded
Whether multimillion-pound salaries and disdain for difficult questions can really unite and represent the values of a modern democracy remains to be seen.
Of course irony is a modern virtue, or vice, but when we study the grandeur of imperial Chinese ritual we rarely consider the perspectives of the lowly tofu-seller. In the words of Alan Bennett’s clergyman, Stuff This For A Lark. Private eye summed up my feelings:
To accompany my post on Ethio-jazz, the whimsical piano music of Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou (1923–2023) made another great coup for Buda Musique producer Francis Falceto in the CD series Éthiopiques. Vol. 21 (2006) opens with the enchanting sounds of The homeless wanderer (playlist):
Her father, the European-educated diplomat and former vice-president of Ethiopia, Kentiba Gebru Desta, was 78 years old when she was born, making her possibly the only person on the planet alive in 2023 with a parent born in 1845. The young Guèbrou was a glamorous society girl, educated at a Swiss boarding school and fluent in several languages. She had piano and violin lessons at a classical conservatoire in Cairo (learning under the Polish violinist Alexander Kontorowicz), immersing herself in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. On her return to Addis Ababa, she started to write her own compositions, and assisted Kontorowicz when he led the Emperor Haile Selassie’s Imperial Guard Band (she recalls playing the Emperor some solo piano pieces and singing him a ballad in Italian).
Following Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Emahoy spent time in confinement with her family on an island near Sardinia (cf. this post). In 1948 she was offered a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but for some reason she couldn’t take up the offer. Depressed and apparently disillusioned, she abandoned high society life to take holy orders, going to live barefoot at an austere convent on the holy mountain of Gishen Mariam north of Addis Ababa.
There she stayed for a decade before returning to Addis to live with her mother, when she started playing the piano again; her recordings between 1963 and the mid-70s have become the basis for her canon. She remained in Ethiopia after the 1974 coup, but was increasingly involved in charity projects with the Ethiopian Orthodox church in Jerusalem, where after her mother’s death in 1984 she lived in a convent for the rest of her life.
In the words of John Lewis, her compositions are a “curious fusion of fin de siècle parlour piano, gospel, ragtime, Ethiopian folk music, and the choral traditions of the country’s Orthodox church… pitched somewhere between Keith Jarrett, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, and Professor Longhair”, using
a series of pentatonic scales, or kignits [useful intro here], which are the building blocks of all Ethiopian music, from its ancient liturgical chants to its folk songs and funky pop music. These five-note scales are similar but musicologically quite distinct from Arabic maqams or Indian modes. They have names like the anchihoye, the tizita and the bati, and most have major and minor-key variations (some, like the ambassel, don’t have a minor or major third at all, and so have a wonderfully ambiguous, open-ended feel). Guèbrou’s piano playing manipulated these modes to draw us in and hypnotise us, like a snake charmer with a pungi.
Here’s an excerpt from the long-awaited documentary Labyrinth of belonging:
After her recent concert of Bach, Berg, Haydn, and Vivier, Barbara Hannigan returned to the Barbican with the LSO in another exquisite programme juxtaposing two of the Great Composers of our age (notes here).
Messiaen’s L’ascension, his first major work for orchestra, * introduces his unique sound-world, opening with hieratic brass chords (E major!!!), closing with ecstatic sustained string writing—another addition to my Messiaen series (starting here).
Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père Alléluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel Alléluia sur la trompette, alléluia sur la cymbale Prière du Christ montant vers son Père.
In my Mahler series I’ve already written about the 4th symphony at some length, featuring performances by Mengelberg, Walter, Barbirolli, Bernstein, Tilson Thomas, and Abbado. OK, I go on a lot about Indian raga and jazz and all that, but to hear Mahler symphonies live is always overwhelming. I admired Ms Hannigan’s dramatic taste, always cultivating the feel of chamber music, and the divine slow movement of the 4th was every bit as spellbinding as it should be. As it ebbed away, blending magically into the instrumental intro of the finale, Aphrodite Patoulidou walked on stage to sing—the kind of attention to detail that makes a difference— adopting just the right tone, neither too soprano-like nor a parody of childlike innocence, the final verse in a hushed E major.
The concert (on BBC Sounds until mid-April) made a moving chapter in Ms Hannigan’s relationship with the LSO.
Their programme at the Barbican last week (notes here) was intense right from the start, with Berio’s hieratic Contrapunctus XIX, an arrangement of the final unfinished work in Bach’s Art of fugue, completed with an enigmatic B-A-C-H chord. Then came Berg’s violin concerto (1935), mourning the death of 18-year-old Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler—with another homage to Bach. Having been entranced by the piece through my teens, I was glad to hear it again, played by Veronika Eberle. Though this was the only piece requiring larger forces, the way she blended with the orchestral sonorities reflected the whole intimacy of the concert, reminiscent of chamber music.
Image: Mark Allen, via @londonsymphony.
After what is known as an “interval”, * Haydn’s Trauersinfonie, more Sturm und Drang than sombre, was delightful. Symphony orchestras venturing back into Early Music can sound ponderous and drab, but scaled down, in the hands of a tasteful director, they’re perfectly capable of bringing such works to life. Not an obvious choice, the symphony is full of the light and shade highlighted in the rest of the programme, and juxtaposing it with new works, Hannigan and the LSO reminded us of Haydn’s creative originality. The oboes and horns shone, the strings with some fine pianissimos between bursts of manic, angular noodling (1st and 2nd violins seated antiphonall, YAY!); and the Adagio (in E major!) was radiant (I couldn’t help imagining Haydn beating Henry Mancini to it with a minor-key variation on the Pink Panther theme).
And so to a most original finale: Lonely child (1980) (see e.g. here and here) by the Canadian Claude Vivier (1948–83) (wiki, and here)—yet another composer whose sound-world was enriched by Balinese gamelan. Without knowing of his traumatic, short life, his text may seem more dreamlike and reassuring, with its “great beams of colour”, stars, magicians, sumptuous palaces, and mauve monks. But Vivier’s music is “forever grasping at a place of security and eternity that is just beyond reach”, in the words of Jo Kirkbride’s programme notes. Hearing it live, I felt a certain remote Arctic chill—suggesting a link with Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, already a modern classic thanks to Hannigan.
Lonely child was first sung by Marie-Danielle Parent, for whom Vivier wrote it. Whereas Hannigan often combines singing and conducting, here she accompanied the evocatively singing of Aphrodite Patoulidou—here they are in 2019:
* At this point my keyboard was hijacked again by a Martian ethnographer, whose note I append here:
Interval: an interruption in the proceedings that appears to be widely accepted by the participants, when they take leave of the ritual building to partake further in the ingestion of mind-altering substances.
My allusion to La ci darem la mano (in Sentimentality in music) reminded me belatedly to catch up on the extensive body of material on the problematic nature of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, from which I cite a mere selection.
As I performed the opera in the pit since the 1970s—effectively “one of the servants”—it hardly seemed my place to reflect on its messages. One likes to think that audiences are more aware since #MeToo, but in my memory of earlier performances, I suspect that many people enjoyed the dramatic frisson and some jolly good tunes without agonising too much over the issues involved—Harmless Fun for All the Family? Among the well-heeled Covent Garden audiences demurely sipping their interval champagne are doubtless victims and perpetrators of sexual violence, yet such a venue may not seem a promising constituency for feminist views.
While the views of Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte are among those considered in the articles I cite below, they (like me) are more concerned with the opera’s later reception history.
Music has the power to conceal as well as to illuminate dramatic agendas; as Roger Kamien noted, “Mozart’s music has made a sinner seem very attractive”—this article, reflecting the mood since #MeToo, incorporates some musical analysis. In this post I relished the aria Protegga il guisto cielo while hardly delving into its message and context.
Writing in 2022, Hannah Szabó notes that E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1813 story praises the opera, treating the protagonist as a venerable force:
the baritone playing Don Giovanni boasts a “powerful, majestic figure” with a “masculinely beautiful” face that stands out in the provincial town where the performance takes place. […] Women, once they have met his gaze, can no longer part with him, and, spellbound by his uncanny power, must ineluctably achieve their own ruin. […] A tyrannical king, he towers above the “puny specimens of humanity whose feeble dreams and plans”—Zerlina’s marriage, Donna Anna’s chastity, Donna Elvira’s infatuation—“he hijacks solely for the sake of his own pleasure”. In comparison, the harem of women he surrounds himself with are reduced to “factory-produced mannequins”, soulless clones who can only be animated by his ever-shifting presence. Among this “vulgar rabble,” Don Giovanni ascends to near-divinity.
This was an enduring view. Joseph Kerman portrayed Don Giovanni as “a romantic hero, a scorner of vulgar morality, and a supreme individualist”. In her fine 2017 article “Holding Don Giovanni accountable”, Kristi Brown-Montesano expresses shock at William Mann’s 1977 misogynistic portrayal of Donna Anna; she finds his position widely echoed in the critical reception of Don Giovanni at the time, heavily skewed in favour of the libertine aristocrat (she makes an apt comparison with James Bond).
Commentators and directors have idealised Mozart’s wilful, seductive, and violent protagonist, crediting him with virtues (unflagging bravery, triumphant self-determination, revolutionary resistance to oppressive societal power, and sensual idealism) that are, at best, only equivocally suggested in the original libretto. […] The female characters are judged largely in terms of charm and receptiveness to the Don’s don’t-say-no sexual advances. […] Fast forward 170 years later and you find conductor James Conlon rhapsodising that all three female characters have experienced a sexual metamorphosis, compliments of Don Giovanni: “their erotic impulses awakened, magnified, and irrevocably changed by their encounter with this mythical seducer”.
But meanings change. Liane Curtis published two articles in 2000: “Don Giovanni: let’s call a rapist a rapist” and “The sexual politics of teaching Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Szabó notes Catherine Clément’s 1979 book Opera, or the undoing of women, “reframing Don Giovanni as an exploration of the ways that gendered power oppresses men and women alike”. As well as the violated noblewomen, Zerlina’s aria Batti, batti,
the most famous invitation to domestic violence in the genre of opera, * reveals a woman of the lowest social class employing the only tool available to her, that of her “feminine” sexuality—”feminine” in the traditional sense of completely submissive. “Beat me, beat me, dear Masetto, beat your poor Zerlina. I will stand here like an innocent lamb and take your blows,” she sings, a frightening stance to take on the first day of her marriage.
As with La ci darem, it was long possible to delight in the apparent romanticism of the aria:
Yes, Don Giovannicomes from a different time. But this is a poor excuse for partitioning opera/art from contemporary ethical values, forever justifying behaviour that—in any age—is predatory and exploitative. Does the work benefit from this protection? Do we?
She ends thus:
If we really care about opera’s continued relevance, then everyone who loves the art form—directors, conductors, singers, critics, educators, audiences—must acknowledge the connection between what we applaud on stage and what we permit in the workplace, school, home. Because Donna Elvira could tell you, the “Catalogue Aria” is not so funny when your name, or the name of someone you love, is on the list.
Susan McClary was a pioneer in unpacking the sexism of Western Art Music. For Michael Nyman’s scintillating instrumental take on the Catalogue aria, click here. On a purely linguistic note, do read Nicolas Robertson’s brilliant anagram tale on Don Giovanni (Noon? Gad—vini!).
In these superfluous polarities that we set up, I can’t help favouring Mozart over Haydn, and Mahler over Bruckner/Richard Strauss. Similarly, I’m so enthralled by Ravel that encounters with Debussy make a more occasional pleasure for me.
One of Debussy’s most alluring works is the late Trio for flute, viola, and harp (1915; see e.g. this introduction). Having heard it a lot in my 20s, I’m just as enchanted now.
Evanescent, melancholy, and whimsical, fleeting vistas emerge and dissolve like Rouen cathedral in the mist. I relish the fleeting chinoiserie, and hints of Mahler’s Abschied at the end of the first movement, with a 7th on flute and harp hanging in the air over the harp’s major triad. And at the very end of the piece, the quirky extra chord never fails to delight me—it’s as if having spent so long gliding around in a sensuous, elusive sea of chromaticism, the performers are so surprised to find themselves actually landing on a chirpy conclusive cadence that they think they might as well confirm it for us with a final flourish.
The very end of the first and last movements.
I like this in-the-round performance at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, with Emmanuel Pahud, Yulia Deyneka, and Aline Khouri, from 2018:
And talking of Boulez, for the influence of this instrumentation on his sound-world, listen to Le marteau sans maître.
My fusty musical tastes then being largely conditioned by the violin, I suppose I responded to the song’s classicism, although Bach didn’t mean much more to me then than he did for most fans of the song. Along with the trippy lyrics, the blending of the Hammond organ (cf. Booker T. Jones in Memphis) with the blues/soul/rock vocal style is perfect:
We skipped the light fandango turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor I was feeling kinda seasick but the crowd called out for more The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away When we called out for another drink the waiter brought a tray.
And so it was that later as the miller told his tale that her face, at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale.
She said, There is no reason and the truth is plain to see But I wandered through my playing cards and would not let her be one of sixteen vestal virgins who were leaving for the coast and although my eyes were open they might have just as well’ve been close.
Here Procul Harum perform it live:
This 1967 film (banned from the BBC) captures the zeitgeist:
A whiter shade of pale is the subject of a programme in the BBC radio Soul music series. With its walking bass, it’s commonly supposed to be inspired by Bach, in particular the Air, but the connection is more generic. Other similarities seem oblique, like the organ prelude O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde groß, or the opening Sinfonia of Bach’s 1729 Leipzig cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (sadly not written for the BBC sitcom):
A more recent comparison is When a man loves a woman, sung by the splendidly-named Percy Sledge (1966):
While generally recreations of original versions are to be welcomed, I seem to regard A whiter shade of pale as sacrosanct, like Beatles songs, so I’m not susceptible to Annie Lennox’s cover. There’s a nice cameo in The commitments:
Meanwhile in 1967, great songs were still coming out of Detroit amidst social upheaval. Among other good years for music, try 1707!
I have to admit that I’ve never warmed to the voice of Kathleen Ferrier, although I’m a devoted fan of Janet Baker. The series generally suggests Christopher Small’s plea to recognise the value of all kinds of musicking, not merely the “prestigious” (cf. What is serious music?!), and guests often include a track of amateur, domestic musicking that evokes intense memories or associations.
Cate introduces Molly Drake (1915–93; playlist), observing: “So private, she was making music inside her home, for herself really… she gives me quiet courage.” Her choice is The little weaver bird:
The *MUST READ* category in the sidebar directs you to some of my more worthwhile posts whose topics deserve to be savoured and shared.
Here’s a selection from recent entries, on a variety of themes:
The sceptical feminist, Janet Radcliffe Richards’ 1980 masterpiece, argued with dispassionate philosophical clarity, and still highly relevant despite some period features
Some Kurdish bards: politics, gender, and heritagification—epic tales of love and war, plangent kilam laments, with some fine recordings, archive and recent
Ogonek and Til—for fans of language, tennis, and fado! Wacky diacritics and nasal vowels in Polish and Portuguese—with matching limericks, and a bonus entry for Gran visits York….
Bach in an empty forest: a mesmerising mile-long xylophone in a Japanese forest, the wonders of a Bach cantata, Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts, and Takemitsu’s early alienation from Japanese musical traditions
Dream a little dream: interesting as it is to listen to earlier and later renditions, Cass Elliott’s 1968 version is enthralling—with the most radiant modulation ever!
The kiosk in Turkey and Europe: late-Ottoman mansions in Istanbul—the ancien régime, a haunted house, women’s changing status under the Republic, and shanty-town migrants; followed by some European kiosks, with cameos from The fast show and The third man
Mahler: a roundup!!! The definitive voice of our age—the symphonies, as well as chamber versions, and piano rolls; quintuplets and major 7ths; Alma and Anna
Beethoven wasn’t big on tunes; but melody wasn’t really the point.
In some ways we might see him as a precursor of minimalism. Too young to know any better, I immersed myself in his music through my teens; but later I tended to steer clear of his music, with honourable exceptions like the late quartets (and now the late E major piano sonata). For the thoughtful Susan McClary, he’s the supreme perpetrator of sexual violence in music.
To be fair, the 7th symphony is exhilarating, both to play and to listen to—DO bask in Carlos Kleiber‘s performance! As I comment in a note there, it seems unlikely that Wagner’s authority for calling the symphony “the apotheosis of the dance” was based on years as a regular on the Bayreuth clubbing scene.
The 1st movement eventually gets going with a wacky motif (the mot juste) on flutes:
Beethoven clearly reckons he’s onto something here, as he wastes no opportunity to repeat it, sometimes even on a different note (YAY! And again, yes I know that’s the point…). In the coda, after the bass section treats us to ten more bars of it, against a deep pedal point on E they start grinding away on a chromatic motif (now using all of three notes—I say, steady on!) (cf. Unpromising chromaticisms), like a dog with a bone:
The finale is obsessive too—without venturing too far into the art of conducting, Kleiber is exhilarating, highlighting its mechanical drive without making it seem too brutal. It opens with more minimalism from the hapless basses:
The violin, um, theme that it accompanies does have a lot of notes (progress), but unless conductors go to considerable lengths to adjust the balance, Beethoven’s instrumentation often drowns out the melody with manic off-beat sforzandi:
More unlikely chromaticism from the basses (another pedal point in the service of an exhilarating climax):
The symphony, built around ostinati, might be considered a response to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution—returning to Wagner and clubbing, maybe it’s the apotheosis of the techno garage trance dance. But for a really funky ostinato, how about Herbie Hancock?
I must confess that my musical examples above are no more successful in encapsulating Beethoven’s genius than were the Bolton Choral Society in summarising Proust…
Mahler is such an important figure on this blog (and indeed in “Western civilisation”!) * that I thought I should offer a roundup of posts—my The art of conducting links to many of these, but it’s always good to remind ourselves of his astounding body of work.
Note the definitive four-volume study by Henry-Louis de La Grange—and online, his series here, with essays on all the symphonies (cf. conductors’ ideas). Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? (2010) is engaging and instructive. For recording guides, see here.
I began writing about Mahler with a post musing on performance practice, vibrato, and Daoism, and went on to offer reflections on the individual symphonies, all overwhelming in their different ways—with plentiful A/V embeds of some of the great interpreters like Bruno Walter, Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, and Rattle:
Here’s my detailed “programme” for the apocalyptic passage in the first movement of the 10th, with the “Scream”:
Now I don’t generally go in for this kind of thing, but after my recent visit to Sachsenhausen one might hear that short episode (under two minutes) as a graphic condensed soundscape foretelling the torments of Europe from c1930 to 1945—like deathbed episodes flashing past (timings as on the 1980 audio recording):
* The quotes there alluding, you gather, to the much-cited but elusive Gandhi story: when asked “What do you think of Western civilisation?”, he is said to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea”.
*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*
Mahler (left) with Bruno Walter, Prague 1908.
Source: Mahler, Year 1908, with many more images.
As a self-confessed Mahler fanatic, I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by the 7th symphony (see e.g. here, and wiki)—and it transpires I’m not alone. I’ve finally got to know it better with the prospect of hearing the stellar lineup of Kirill Petrenko and the Berlin Phil performing it live at the Proms (listen here).
Mahler wrote the symphony in 1904–05, premiering it in Prague in 1908, over which period his family and professional problems had taken a serious turn for the worse.
Here’s a rather impressive review of the British premiere in 1913, led by Henry Wood—I like
It looked as if the audience had derived some pleasure from the performance, though they felt not sure whether they were right in enjoying it. [cf. Woody Allen’s “wrong kind of orgasm”.]
The opening movement is most substantial, after the opening melody on Tenorhorn with its unsettling tritone. Of course, Mahler thrives on extreme contrasts, but somehow I still find the symphony too disjointed; the collage sometimes reminds me of Ives. More intimate sections are all too fleeting, like that building from the bucolic passage (from 9.11 in Abbado’s performance below) and near the ending (from 17.01), before the climax of the coda—which I also find rather a challenge.
Between the more grandiose outer movements, the two pieces of nachtmusik are themselves punctuated by a spooky scherzo, foreshadowing Ravel’s La valse (“a surreal nightmarish vision of a decaying society through a broken kaleidoscope”)—and featuring an fffffpizzicato in the cellos and basses!
The first nachtmusik is “grotesque, with friendly intentions”, according to wiki; the second, andante amoroso, is more intimate and human, with a transcendent ending—before the blazing, brash finale, which Michael Kennedy described as “a vigorous life-asserting pageant of Mahlerian blatancy”. Without Mahler’s typical extended passages of intense soul-searching, the final victory doesn’t seem sufficiently hard-won.
In this symphony the kitsch that is such a distinctive, poignant part of Mahler’s sound world rarely moves me. Even his use of cowbells doesn’t add up to much after the transcendental (if ambivalent) mood they impart in the 6th symphony. Mahler’s palette also makes use of guitar and mandolin—another suitable outlet for the Music Minus One franchise?
My struggle with the 7th may be partly to do with my personal history of getting to know the symphonies, but critics have long pondered its flaws; even if it has some impressive defenders, it it is famously difficult to make cohere.
As to recordings (see e.g. here and here, as well as Norman Lebrecht, Why Mahler? pp.267–8), I’ve chosen some outstanding live performances. Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra always make an exceptional team—here they are in 2005:
This 1993 concert by Tennstedt and the London Phil was his last recording:
and here’s S-Simon Rattle with the Berlin Phil in 1999:
Back at the Proms, the Berlin Phil sounded fabulous (for the orchestra’s early history, click here, and here). But even hearing it live, much as I relish the building blocks, I must admit I still don’t really get the piece—it feels as if the pieces of the jigsaw don’t quite fit together. Still, it’s Mahler, and the standing ovation was richly deserved (see this rave review).
This season also features the 1st and 4th symphonies—as well as S-Simon conducting the 2nd, the event of the season. I will always enjoy hearing the 7th live, but it’s also a reminder to immerse ourselves in the miracles of the 2nd and 3rd, the 9th and 10th, the 5th and 6th, the 1st and 4th, as well as Das Lied von der Erde…
The annual visit of the National Youth Orchestra to the Proms is always a great event. This year, conducted by Andrew Gourlay, their programme included Ravel and Gershwin—listen here (also to be shown on BBC TV on 19th August).
Michel Fokine in Daphnis and Chloé, c1910. Source: wiki.
The week after Ravel’s piano concerto, Daphnis and Chloé was ravishing as ever, brilliantly played—even if I wanted rather more fantasy, bringing out its balletic, gestural, impromptu, sensual qualities, as my rose-tinted hearing-aid recalls Boulez conducting it in the 1970s…
In the first half, after Danny Elfman’s Wunderkammer, Simone Dinnerstein played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in blue, always a pleasure. As an encore they played a Gershwin arrangement by Trish Clowes, conducted by NYO percussionist Sophie Stevenson (her jaunty hat not recalling the headwear of the Albert Hall audiences of yesteryear).
Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.155–63) has some salient perspectives on Gershwin. The premiere of Rhapsody in blue, “with one foot in the kitchen, one in the salon”, was part of the mission “to give jazz a quasi-classical respectability” (cf. What is serious music?!, and Joining the elite musical club).
The wiki article on the piece has intriguing detail. Gershwin first wrote it in 1924 for a concert at the Aeolian Hall in New York entitled “An experiment in modern music”, whose purpose was “to be purely educational”. Conceiving it as “a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness”, he played the solo piano part himself, with the score for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band arranged by Ferde Grofé. Gershwin partially improvised, and only committed the piano part to paper after the performance (cf. Messiaen).
I weep over the lifelessness of its melody and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive.
Like the audience, other critics were more enthusiastic, one commenting that the piece had “made an honest woman out of jazz” (oh,so jazz is female is it, like ships? Pah!). On an incongruous note, the concert ended with Elgar’s Pomp and circumstance March No.1.
Further to the piano rolls of Mahler and Debussy, here’s a gorgeous (if very fast) recording of Gershwin’s own piano roll from 1925 fused with the Columbia Jazz Band directed by Michael Tilson Thomas in 1976:
Amidst all the jazzy glitz, crowning the piece (from 8.22 on the recording above) is one of the All-Time Great Tunes, * worthy of Rachmaninoff—in sumptuous E major, to boot!
By the time Grofé made the orchestral arrangement in 1942, jazz hardly needed the veneer of respectability, although it did go on to acquire a quasi-classical status.
Rhapsody in blue soon became the soundscape of New York (for well-off white people, I guess that means). Some musicians still had reservations about it, like Constant Lambert: “neither good jazz nor good Liszt”. Leonard Bernstein’s comments have been seen as criticism, but read more like an insight into the intrinsic nature of jazz, countering reification:
Rhapsody in Blue is not a real composition in the sense that whatever happens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut out parts of it without affecting the whole in any way except to make it shorter. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. You can even interchange these sections with one another and no harm done. You can make cuts within a section, or add new cadenzas, or play it with any combination of instruments or on the piano alone; it can be a five-minute piece or a six-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And in fact all these things are being done to it every day. It’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.
It’s mainly become a frozen vehicle for WAM pianists rather than jazzers, but here’s a refreshing 1995 recording with Marcus Roberts:
Among composers who were reluctant to inflict their learning on such a genius as Gershwin were Nadia Boulanger, Ravel, Schoenberg—and Alban Berg, who remarked wisely:
“Mr Gershwin, music is music.”
* * *
Oh well—in the end the NYO Prom was still, um, an orchestral concert. Maybe I was still in world-music mode after immersing myself in the Pontic lyra and Rajasthani bards, so I had to get used again to the whole complex regimentation of the orchestral machine, and found myself struck by the vast investment of aspirational parents (instruments, lessons, giving lifts to local venues…).
Not the new European champions defending a corner (another Spot the Ball competition),
but Nijinsky’s “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.
Hot on the heels of the amazing women’s football on Sunday, it was great to return again to the Proms, to hear the engaging Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a fine programme (listen here) culminating in Stravinsky’s ever-astounding The Rite of Spring.
The overture, Harrison Birtwistle’s Sonance Severance 2000, far from The pirates of Penzance, was challenging but mercifully brief. Then young Tom Borrow played the exquisite Ravel piano concerto—the perfect piece for a summer night at the Proms. I was even able to forgive him for not being Hélène Grimaud. After a rather measured first movement (with more rubato than Ravel might have wished), thankfully he didn’t take the Adagio assai quite as slowly as in this 2019 performance (assai is generally interpreted as “very”, but some composers used it as “rather”; I don’t know how Ravel meant it, but an excessively ponderous interpretation doesn’t seem to work for a piece of such classical elegance). As an encore he treated us to Debussy’s Feux d’Artifice.
Before the interval the orchestra played the stimulating Jonchaies (“reed-beds”, 1977) of Iannis Xenakis (see also this obituary). Pierre Boulez described Xenakis as having a “fantastic brain—absolutely no ear”, but Jonchaies is full of fantastical sonorities. I’m really pleased to have heard it. Here’s a recording:
The choice was apt: its primordial soundscape is somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky’sThe Rite of Spring, which followed after the interval. Though long part of the mainstream orchestral repertoire, The Rite never loses its power to amaze (see The shock of the new, and the NYO’s 2017 Prom). Just imagine hearing it for the first time, or indeed playing it as a teenager…
As I absorbed the hippy zeitgeist of the 60s with regular forays to Watkins bookshop, Zen, Daoism, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, and Krishnamurti were all grist to my mill. Also part of this scene were Castaneda and Gurdjieff; but I was immune to them both at the time—and apparently I still am.
Of Armenian and Greek descent, he was brought up in the multi-ethnic society of Kars (“a remote and very boring town”) in the Transcaucasus. His father was a carpenter and amateur ashokh (ashik) bard. In early adulthood George travelled widely around Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India, seeking out dervishes, fakirs, and monastic sects.
By 1912 Gurdjieff was back in Moscow, where he conceived his ballet The struggle of the magicians (1914). He soon took pupils such as Peter Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann. After the Russian revolution he returned to his family home of Alexandropol, moving on to Tbilisi and Istanbul (where he attended the sema ritual of the “whirling dervishes”). He set up an Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Avon south of Paris, as well as visiting Berlin and London. After a car accident he began visiting the USA, raising funds and attracting followers. From 1936 he was based in Paris, where he remained through the war.
Meetings with remarkable menis the second book in Gurdjieff’s trilogy All and everything. He began writing it in 1927, revising it over many years; in English translation it was first published in 1963. It relates his intrepid expeditions with the “Community of Truth Seekers” before 1912, with a series of adventures in places such as Tabriz, Ferghana, Tashkent, Bukhara, Kashgar, Thebes, Babylon, India, and Siberia; whether he visited Tibet, perhaps as a Russian secret agent, looks dubious (see here, and here).
I find the book somewhat curious. While autobiographical in outline, its characters appear more symbolic than factual; it’s full of drôle anecdotes, short on ethnography. He recalls his father taking him to contests of ashokh bards in Van, Karabakh, and Subatan. He soon became attracted to a discursive, metaphysical mode of enquiry, and to the Wisdom of the Ancients.
And rather than the itinerant bards and folk dervishes of Sufi tradition, Gurdjieff’s main subjects are from a literate urban milieu, such as Father Borsh, dean of the Kars Military Cathedral; Bogachevsky, or Father Evlissi, assistant to the abbot of the chief monastery of the Essene brotherhood, who later became a monk in Russia, Turkey, Mount Athos, and Jerusalem; and the Russian prince Yuri Lubovedsky. He even introduces a remarkable woman: Vitvitskaya, Polish by birth, had been rescued from “white slavery” by the prince, and she became interested in his ideas, and took part in the team’s expeditions. After learning the piano, she began to explore the psychic dimensions of music, but died early.
Another companion on Gurdjieff’s travels was Soloviev. With an introduction from a dervish to the enigmatic Sarmoung brotherhood, they embarked on an expedition to find the brotherhood’s secret monastery “somewhere in the heart of Asia”. There, apparently, they witnessed the “sacred dances” of the priestesses. This whole passage is among several of Gurdjieff’s tall tales that stretch credibility.
While these Gurdjieff’s colleagues were interested in the occult, exploring hypnosis, fakirism, and séances, they ended up pursuing academic or scientific careers.
Much of the account is devoted to supernatural phenomena that seemed to defy rational explanation—such as an encounter with the “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, and efficacious rain prayers performed by an archimandrite from Antioch. Such experiences draw him further to the study of ancient esoteric literature. As they go in search of the Aïsor minority, he notes in passing the political turmoil among Turkish, Persian, and Russian Armenians.
To finance his explorations Gurdjieff engaged in various money-making enterprises—as repairman, tourist guide, shoe-shiner, and so on. In one of such ventures Gurdjieff learns how to make bric-a-brac, “all the rubbish with which it was at one time fashionable to decorate tables, chest of drawers, and special what-nots”. He notes the trade in relics, made by Aïsor household priests.
He mentions expeditions in search of monastic communities and dervishes without telling us anything much about them; they appear rather as exotic extras in an Indiana Jones movie. He bemoans European ignorance of Asia, yet this kind of mumbo-jumbo does little to dispel it. The book often reminds me of the brilliant spoof The ascent of Rum Doodle.
This is neither here nor there, but in my teens, fascinated by mysticisms farther east, I wouldn’t have been receptive to all this. Now, though I have become more enamoured of Sufism, and I (somewhat) admire Gurdjieff’s mystical quest, I am still resistant to his habit of re-dressing contemplative lifestyles as abstruse philosophy. This isn’t entirely fair of me: as at Zen or Christian communities, in his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man he was much concerned to embody his teachings in a whole way of living, such as manual labour. And of course, he was a product of his time, as we all are—we have to bear in mind that his travels took place before 1912.
Music Gurdjieff’s music makes a rather minor theme. His best-known works were composed for piano in the 1920s, in collaboration with the Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann.
This substantial ouevre, often associated with his “movements”, or sacred dances, is influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgy. Among many works on YouTube, here’s Musics of sayyids and dervishes:
Of course, composers like Bartók commonly adapted folk material. But not all Gurdjieff fans will be led to the original Sufi sources of his inspiration.
If some of the piano pieces can sound rather twee, falling foul of the harmonic straitjacket (try the two “Tibetan” pieces at 37.54 and 57.26 on the Meditations album!), Gurdjieff’s improvisations at the harmonium, perhaps better suited to his style, are monochromatically meditative. Recordings of the latter were made in his Paris apartment in the last two years of his life:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for lengthy musical meditations, and the extreme affective contrasts of WAM are perhaps exceptional; but the over six hours’ worth (!) of recordings here will appeal only to the mystical masochist. Of course, one shouldn’t hear such improvisations divorced from the context of his soirées—better still, I suggest, would be not to hear them at all.
It’s also curious to think that Gurdjieff was based in Paris, where Messiaen discovered his own unique style of Catholic mysticism in which monumental works for piano and organ played a major role. Of course, the two men were totally different: for Messiaen, like Bach, music was the whole vast edifice within which he devoted himself to the service of God, and it entrances audiences irrespective of their faith—whereas Gurdjieff’s music will appeal mainly as a byway to adherents of his philosophy.
* * *
Peter Brook’s 1979 film version of Meetings with remarkable men, while bold, is inevitably rather English; perhaps more in tune with Gurdjieff’s mystical vision are the extraordinary fantasies of Sergei Parajanov. As to latter-day quests for gurus, try the travel writings of William Dalrymple, such as In Xanadu, From the holy mountain, and Nine lives.
Aha—with that title I will perhaps manage to offend both flute and clarinet aficionados at once! I’ll try and redeem myself.
The Mozart clarinet quintet appears in my post on Hugh Maguire, and the clarinet concerto is just as sublime. To complement Andrew Marriner’s exquisite solo in the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony with Rozhdestvensky, here he is with the Adagio of the Mozart concerto:
The Rondo finale (below) is full of wonderful chiaroscuro contrasts—solemnity (3.17), and pathos (4.40) with slapstick interludes. But my inspiration for this post is a tiny passage in between (just seven bars, from 4.01, beginning breezily enough at 3.45) that has always entranced me: languid, sultry flutes sustaining hushed low chords, joined by bassoons; upper strings chugging, even chirping; while the clarinet does a little “bad cop–good cop” routine in low and high registers:
More to relish there: the violins leading into the passage with staccato quavers, taking over from the clarinet’s legato sign-off; and the way the bassoons fill out the flute chords by joining in a bar later:
(clarinet part “in A”, you gather, sounding a minor 3rd lower than written)
I yield to no-one in my veneration for Mahler 5, some great renditions of which I’ve provided here—irreverently introduced by a version of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo on rubber chicken…
In distressingly similar vein, I’ve just had a vision of how Mahler might have revised the sublime Adagietto had he lived through to the 1930s (as he should have done) to arrange it as a catchy up-tempo number for a New York swing band, with blaring horn section (led, perhaps, by Buck Clayton) and zany syncopations, largely dispensing with the sentimental appoggiaturas.
So here’s my preliminary draft of the melody on horns, leaving you to fill in the boogie-woogie bass-line, drum-kit, and funky sax harmonies—it works even better with the hushed original opening bar and a half:
Actually, Mahler’s choice of key works well for jazz winds, making one suspect that the original was just a preliminary sketch—after all, if you’re writing a slow love song for strings, whoever would plump for F major rather than E major or F♯ major?!
As to tempo, one might regard the two versions of the Adagietto as the opposite of what happened to the music of the Tang court after it was exported to Japan, where it began a long process of retardation.
The big-band arrangement would also suit a turbo-charged Balkan brass band like Fanfare Ciocârlia. I can’t take responsibility for my wayward visions, but I realise WAM purists (bless) may be alarmed. Conversely, composers from Bach to Mahler did often creatively recycle their previous work. Bach has inspired a wealth of jazz and world arrangements; and folk and popular musics were intrinsic elements in Mahler’s sound world (see e.g. under the 4th symphony). I rest my case.
Not merely as an attempt to redeem myself, now we must go back to Mahler’s original version—within the context of the whole glorious symphony. I’m also constantly amazed at the second movement, its turbulent trauma punctuated by the hushed cello recitative.
They opened with Richard Strauss’s searing Metamorphosen, composed at the end of World War Two—all the more moving on a day when war came to Europe again. Dispensing with Denis Guéguin’s pre-recorded video montage (shown in the 2021 concert below), Ms Hannigan left the hushed lower strings to open the piece by themselves—an effective device (cf. Noddy and Hector). It’s a threnody that deserves to be the intense focus of any programme, yet tends to suffer as a kind of overture.
After barely a pause to reset the stage, Hannigan’s brief, mind-bending spoken introduction on screen prepares us for Francis Poulenc’s “brief and devastating” tragédie-lyrique opera La voix humaine (1958), in which she embodies the abandoned and distraught “Elle” on the phone to her former lover.
This is the latest of several versions she has been working on since 2015; through Clemens Malinowski’s live video projection (subtitled in English) we find Elle caught in her own fantasy, directing the orchestra. Following on from her signature incarnation of Lulu, Hannigan observes:
Elle has been a significant role for me as my career has evolved, and we now see an Elle who sings, an Elle who conducts. The theme of transformation runs throughout the programme on many levels, as we confront issues such as ageing, deterioration, decadence, loss, and disintegration. I had always thought that Elle’s forays into fantasy, delusion, and control made La voix humaine a highly possible sing-conduct performance.
Poulenc completed the opera soon after Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites. Based on the 1928 play by Cocteau, it was composed for Denise Duval *—Poulenc worked closely with them both on the piece.
Here’s Duval in a 1970 film of the opera, using her 1959 audio recording (first of four parts):
Barbara Hannigan is the most mesmerising physical presence on stage. As she sings she cues the orchestra with demented nodding, pummelling them with clenched fists—a far cry from the austere male maestros of yesteryear. Though some reviewers (e.g. here and here) found the interpretation narcissistic, her standing ovation was well deserved.
This is her 2021 performance of the programme with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France:
* Although Poulenc wrote the opera for Duval, Jessica Duchen’s programme notes cite a drôle story about Callas, the ultimate diva:
Another spur for the piece may have been an incident at La Scala, Milan, when, at a performance with some friends in January 1956, Poulenc watched Maria Callas taking a curtain call. He recalled: “As the last notes faded beneath thunderous applause, Callas violently pushed the splendid Mario [del Monaco] into the corner of the wings and advanced by herself into the middle of the stage. At which point one of my dear friends, my publisher [Henri Dugardin], who was sitting next to me, said: “You should write an opera just for her—that way, she wouldn’t be such a nuisance.”
I was tickled by a recent headline in OK! magazine:
There’s the ultimate DOOF DOOF:
What if EastEnders isn’t real?? Like, if they’re all… acting??
Confession: I’ve never been able to interpret the doof doofs. How do we hear the rhythm—how would you beat time to it? Or is it a free-tempo prelude? I guess most EastEnders fans don’t talk in such fancy terms, so such online talk as I’ve seen is limited to a fatuous debate over how many doof doofs there are (nine, obvs), irrespective of rhythm. More to the point, can people keep a regular beat to it?
We have an Urtext of Simon May’s melody from 1985. The synth drums were added to the opening in 1994, in a version that remained in use until 2009, when he rescored the theme tune to include a stronger drum beat and additional percussion. But I haven’t seen a score for the doof doofs. Because one’s ears (rightly) want it to be a 4/4 bar, like the following melody, somehow I’ve always heard the first three drumbeats as a triplet:
That’s close—but a more accurate rendition, as I am reliably informed by a talented drummer, is
That opening syncopation, even before a tempo has been established, must confuse other listeners besides me. Still, EastEnders addicts evidently take it in their stride, like Aretha fans with the triple-time insert in the chorus of I say a little prayer, or Turkish dancers with aksak limping metre—or, now I come to think of it, music lovers everywhere…
The opening of Beethoven 5 may sound to the casual listener like a triplet upbeat—as PDQ Bach observes in his illuminating commentary, “I don’t know if it’s slow or fast, cos it keeps stopping, folks… doesn’t seem to be able to get off the ground” (NB also Creative tribulations).
A comparison that springs to mind (OK, my mind) is the luopu motif that opens and closes the hymns of the Li family Daoists (see my Daoist priests of the Li family, p.280; examples in our film, e.g. 1.01.56). In this post the motif is mainly a pretext to tell a story about the singularly unimaginative opening of the Beethoven violin concerto on timpani—which would be much enlivened by replacing it with the Doof Doof.
Bach composed the six cantatas of hisChristmas Oratorio to be performed on six separate feast days, starting with the birth of Jesus on Christmas Day, the final instalment on Epiphany on 6th January—which is today! We can relish the whole cycle in John Eliot Gardiner’s performance at Weimar at the start of the Bach cantata pilgrimage.
In Part Six, The Adoration of the Magi, I’ve been thinking of the exquisite aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen. Here’s an earlier performance from 1987, with Nancy Argenta:
For the musician, the inner parts are captivating to play.
And then the whole final sequence is astounding, with the tenor aria accompanied by oboes d’amore, with the following recitative by the vocal quartet, leading to the final chorale with vertiginous trumpet!!!
For more Epiphany cantatas, click here; and for the bluegrass fiddling at the opening of the Journey of the Magi, here. See also A Bach retrospective.
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
Talking of colour, in north Europe we no longer get so much snow, but our Christmas really is very white—celebrated by nativities with white people in fancy dress, based on stories by the genteel British names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Welcome as is the growing presence in our schools of children from the Middle East, who could imagine that is just where all this took place?
And even once we recognise this, the tableau still isn’t monocultural—as illustrated by the story of the Three Magi. As wiki observes,
The single biblical account in Matthew simply presents an event at an unspecified point after Christ’s birth in which an unnumbered party of unnamed “wise men” (μάγοι, mágoi) visits him in a house (οἰκίαν, oikian), not a stable, with only “his mother” mentioned as present.
In early sources the term magus refers to Persian sorcerers/astrologers; the three were first named as Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior in a Greek manuscript from 500CE.
Jonathan Jones describes their changing representations in art. Although the Venerable Bede described Balthasar as black in the 8th century, very few images depicted him thus before 1400; but in the Renaissance, representations proliferated along with growing awareness of other races then being subjugated, serving to illustrate Christianity’s powers of conversion.
The topos of blackness becomes in Europe a reflexive gesture denoting the exotic and the foreign. […] By this time, courts, kings, and nobles played with blackness for purposes of spectacle in performances of masques, pageantry, processions, and balls.
This leads to a discussion of the use of blackface in Epiphany and Three Kings’ Day parades (cf. the Bacup Morris dancers).
Of course, we can’t expect historical authenticity from religion. Acculturation is subject to constant change. Religious art too reflects changing perceptions and agendas.
Turning to 1730s’ Leipzig, among the constant wonders of Bach’s Christmas oratorio, The Journey of the Magi (Part Five) opens with an exhilarating chorus in which the fiddles get as close to bluegrass noodling as you can in early music—as if the Magis’ stellar Satnav had whimsically chosen a route to Bethlehem via Appalachia:
Part Six goes on to portray The Adoration of the Magi.
Messiaen‘s depictions of the story are also wondrous. On a lighter note, my post on The Three Wise Men of Daoist ritual studies includes a cameo from Monty Python (“We were led by a star!” “Led by a bottle, more like!”).For the unpromising chromaticisms of I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, click here.
Continuing my series on Olivier Messiaen (starting here, with most links), and following last Christmas’s offering of La nativité du Seigneur, I’m finally immersing myself in the monumental Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus—composed in 1944 after Messiaen’s release from POW camp and during the liberation of Paris.
I find Joanna MacGregor’s notes a useful companion, supplementing the evocative images that Messiaen provides in the score with her own insights as a performer—pointing out flashes of boogie-woogie, Tibetan trumpets, calypso, the fluttering of angels’ wings… And regarding the birdsong that constantly decorates Messiaen’s spiritual vision, as MacGregor observes, in their proximity to God, birds can be gentle, sleepy, cheeky, melodic, hilarious, quarrelsome, triumphant. Too bad Messiaen never got to Spread the Word on Twitter …
He composed the cycle for Yvonne Loriod—her complete recording, with score, is here. Among other pianists, Jean-Rodolphe Kars has a particular affinity with Messiaen’s spirituality, as is clear from his testimony, written after he was ordained in 1981—here’s his wondrous live performance from 1976, on the eve of his conversion:
Messiaen details the themes that pervade the work:
Thème deDieu, in the unifying key of F sharp major, further enriched by Messiaen’s favourite extatique added-sixth chord
Thème de l’amour mystique
Thème de l’étoile et de la croix
Thème deDieu at the opening.
In style, images, and material, the cycle constantly foreshadows Turangalîla, both opulent and ascetic. While all the visions are enthralling, I particularly relish
1 Regard du Père—hypnotic, with “gently reiterated C sharps in the right hand giving us the first glimpse of the gamelan”
5 Regard du Fils sur le Fils—contemplation adorned with birdsong
6 Par Lui tout a été fait—virtuosity culminating in the Thème de Dieu, victorieux et agité, combining with the Thème de l’amour mystique
10 Regard de l’Esprit de joie—equivalent to the exhilarating 5th movement of Turangalîla, “a clash of Western jazziness with Hindu dance rhythms”; here it is played by Pierre-Laurent Aimard:
15 Le baiser de l’enfant-Jésus—“the bringing-together of spirituality and sensuality: of Roman Catholic iconography and Eastern eroticism”
19 Je dors, mais mon coeur veille—the heart of the meditation, basking in F sharp major; played here by Joanna MacGregor:
—leading to the massive finale Regard de l’Église d’amour, which brings together “all the themes, angels, birds, bells, gongs, and tam-tams that we’ve heard in the previous two hours”.
Click here for a precious film of Messiaen himself improvising on the Nativity at the Saint-Trinité organ in 1985!
Sola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.
In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).
After graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was
irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.
By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.
London and New York In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.
With Vini Reilly, 1988.
Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.
In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.
Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):
After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.
In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:
In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.
Back in the PRC After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she
cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.
In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:
The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.
From The afterlife of Li Jiantong.
Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.
Here’s a short CCTV documentary:
* * *
Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing, and Rock it, mom), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.
You really must read Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective! An anthology of critical assaults on composers since Beethoven’s time, it cites a wealth of “biased, unfair, ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgements”. *
Having mentioned the book’s magnificent “Invecticon” in The joys of indexing, in various posts I gave quotations from scathing early reviews that Slonimsky cites:
Berlioz (lunatic… the caperings and gibberings of a big baboon)
Turangalîla (Dorothy Lamour in a sarong … Hindu Hillbillies).
(As the glosses by a Chinese friend suggest, a wacky challenge for language learning…)
* * *
In his thoughtful prelude, “Non-acceptance of the unfamiliar”, Slonimsky reflects on critical incomprehension, under various rubrics such as racism, lack of melody, and noise.
In the minds of righteous reactionaries, musical modernism is often associated with criminality and moral turpitude.
As he observes,
A fairly accurate timetable could be drawn for the assimilation of unfamiliar music by the public and the critics. It takes approximately twenty years to make an artistic curiosity out of a modernistic monstrosity; and another twenty years to elevate it to a masterpiece. Not every musical monstrosity is a potential musical masterpiece, but its chances of becoming one are measurably better than those of a respectable composition of mediocre quality.
He cites George Bernard Shaw, writing in 1910:
It is not easy for a musician of today to confess that he once found Wagner’s music formless, melodyless, and abominably discordant; but that many musicians, now living, did so is beyond all question. […] The technical history of modern harmony is a history of growth of toleration by the human ear of chords that at first sounded discordant and senseless to the main body of contemporary professional musicians.
* * *
Slonimsky suggests parallels with critical reactions to other modernist trends, including painting, women’s suffrage, and science. Another well-covered topic that he also addresses is outrage at the rise of jazz. As early as 1899 the Musical courier exclaimed:
A wave of vulgar, filthy, and suggestive music has inundated the land. Nothing but ragtime prevails, and the cake-walk with its obscene posturings, its lewd gestures. […] Our children, our young men and women, are continually exposed to the contiguity, to the monstrous attrition of this vulgarising music. It is artistically and morally depressing, and should be suppressed by press and pulpit.
He cites the Most Reverend Francis J. L. Beckman’s address to the National Council of Catholic Women in 1938, in line with Nazi assaults on “degenerate music”:
Jam sessions, jitterbugs, and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies are wooing our youth along the primrose path to Hell!
Back in 1805, the waltz attracted similar opprobrium:
Waltz is a riotous German dance of modern invention. Having seen it performed by a select party of foreigners, we could not help reflecting how uneasy an English mother would be to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.
* Slonimsky acknowledges an 1877 antecedent in Wilhelm Tappert’s generously-titled Ein Wagner-Lexicon, Wörterbuch der Unhöflichkeit, enthaltend grobe, höhnende, gehässige und verleumderische Ausdrücke welche gegen den Meister Richard Wagner, seine Werke und seine Anhänger von den Feinden und Spöttern gebraucht worden sind, zur Gemütsergötzung in müssigen Stunden gesammelt.
I’ve already praised Stephen Isserlis’s wonderful performances of Bach cello suites, and now, as if by magic, he’s written a definitive guide:
Stephen Isserlis, The Bach cello suites: a companion (2021).
Here’s a trailer for his complete recordings of the suites (2007):
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, and indeed, Steven writes about them too—but his comments are glorious, leading one irresistibly to the music, and performance. The book is intended “for music-lovers of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the casual listener to the performing musician”; by contrast with the ponderous style of academics whose worthy, voluminous research he digests so well, his chatty style feels personal and communicative rather than twee, always informed by his insights as a performer. Do also consult his website, where he writes engagingly (e.g. his fine post on Harpo).
After a brief biography of Bach, in Part 2 (“The genesis of the suites”) Steven ponders some basic questions. In “Why did Bach write the suites?” he surveys earlier works—Italian pieces for unaccompanied cello, and a German repertoire for unaccompanied violin; and he often contrasts Bach’s own violin sonatas and partitas from around the same period. He explores for whom the cello suites might have been written, and for what instrument, introducing the various types of cello then played, as well as the bow—so important in animating the music. We can’t even date the suites precisely, though they were composed during Bach’s years at Köthen, before he settled in Leipzig.
His discussion of the four early sources, and their relationships, renders arcane scholarship accessible and relevant to performance—seemingly minor differences in the notes, in slurring, and so on—illustrating the latter with the Prelude of the first suite. While making a convincing case for informed readings of the research to illuminate performance, he is amused by scholarly spats:
I am a member of various societies devoted to composers—partly because I’m interested in those composers, and partly because I find it so funny to read such things as, for instance, Professor Y’s triumphant assertion that Professor Z is quite wrong to say that Liszt arrived in Bologna on 30 October, because here is a restaurant bill from a Bologna restaurant dated 28 October. The next newsletter is then likely to contain a furious letter from Professor Z, pointing out that the 28 October bill—as all the world (except Professor Y, evidently) knows—actually dates from the previous year, when Liszt was between Modena and Imola and stopped off for lunch in Bologna between 1pm and 3pm; with all due respect (i.e. very little), Professor Z suggests that Professor Y should have done her homework, and perhaps had her eyesight checked, before making such preposterous allegations.
Steven’s account of reception history is also fascinating. While Bach’s music was not completely forgotten after his death, the cello suites were. Several editions were published in the 1820s, but they still remained accessible only to a select few. At Schumann’s behest, they were performed complete in Düsseldorf over New Year 1853–54, but any other sporadic performances were mostly of single movements, sometimes with piano accompaniment (Shock Horror). In 1879 the suites were eventually published in the Bach Gesellschaft edition. But still, their modern rediscovery came only with Pablo Casals (1876–1973), who at the age of 13 came across a (dodgy) edition in a music shop near the harbour in Barcelona, and later went on to popularise the suites throughout the world. His complete recordings from 1936 to 1939 were made at a particularly traumatic time for both Spain and the world:
In Part 3 Steven stresses the nature of the works as collections of dance movements. After outlining the history of the suite, he explains the style of the individual genres, beginning with the Prelude, then a term for improvisation, “the highest peak of performance” (Mattheson). He gives a fine exposition of the varied tempi of the “challenging” Allemandes, which were already rather distant from social dancing. Following the Courante, “like majestically beating hearts at the centre of each suite, the Sarabandes are oases of poignant calm”, far from the risqué nature of the dance’s Central American origins. After Menuet, Bourrée, or Gavotte comes the final, exuberant Gigue.
In Part 4 Steven adroitly answers fourteen FAQs, including wise comments on style and thoughts on the baroque cello, strings, and bow. On playing from memory:
I do find a music stand somehow impedes contact with an audience in these pieces. […] I did play the fourth suite once with a page-turner; but he turned consistently one movement ahead of the one I was actually playing—so I had to play it from memory after all. I found, in fact, that I could do it—so I thanked him; he’d done me a favour.
He then suggests fourteen rules for the player, beginning with Rule 1: “There are NO rules for playing this music”. Other advice includes “Don’t demonstrate your ideas”, “Dance!”, and he offers wise words on the sparing, expressive use of vibrato, as well as stressing the (often invisible) bassline, and the harmonic structure. Finally he reminds us to enjoy playing the music, with all its joy and humour.
Part 5 makes an impressive case for an underlying sacred programme behind the suites—making them effectively a suite of suites depicting the life of Christ. Here, and throughout, Steven makes insightful comparisons with other Bach works, in particular the church cantatas. Citing Ruth Tatlow, he ponders Bach’s interest in the symbolism of numbers. He then offers rather detailed programmes:
1 Nativity (with a fine analysis of the Prelude)
2 The Agony in the Garden
3 The Holy Trinity—or the Ascension
4 Magnificat—or the Presentation in the Temple
For the second suite he thoughtfully discusses the puzzling chords at the end of the Prelude; while admitting the possibility of decorating them in the style of the rest of the movement, he also makes an analogy with the Five Holy Wounds.
By contrast with the C major “blaze of glory” of the third suite, the C minor tonality of the fifth suite, “perfect backdrop for the unfolding of tragedy”, is echoed in other “sombre masterpieces” (the final movements of Bach’s own Passions, Mozart, Brahms, Rachmaninoff: see here). At its heart is the Sarabande, “the epitome of loneliness, desolation, despair”.
For the sixth suite,
Having darkened the sound of the cello with the tuned-down A string in the fifth suite, Bach now reaches out to the sky with a fifth string, an E string a fifth above the A—rather like those medieval master builders who developed Gothic windows, with pointed arches reaching towards heaven, letting in more light.
He likens the opening to the pealing of bells—a more authentic simile than the equally evocative image of the Sicilian marranzanu jew’s harp (a post that also includes a complete live performance of the six suites by Yoyo Ma at the Proms).
Steven continues to sing the praises of this Prelude in Part 6, where he takes the suites movement by movement, pondering nuances. For the Courante of the first suite (“a bundle of fun”) he recalls his teacher-guru Jane Cowan describing it as “a portrait of a street entertainer performing an energetic dance to the accompaniment of his pet monkey banging on a drum”; she characterised the Gigue as “drunk”. He includes notes on bowings that (as ever) are not just technical but musical too—such as the Prelude of the third suite, where he explores a conundrum in the variant sources (“Anna Magdalena has been at the wine again”). For his comments on the Sarabande of the fifth suite, click here.
As to the wonderful Allemande of the sixth suite (another alap, I’d say),
If one is thinking in terms of the recitatives that the short note-values bring to mind, there must be a certain freedom within the beat; but it is at least equally important to remember that, even though the style may be vocal in nature, it is still an allemande. […] One has to breathe in expansive, unhurried spans, perhaps imagining a moving bassline controlling the flow of the melodic current.
“The greatest cycle ever to be written for a solo cello” is completed with a Gigue of “bounding, irresistible, unquenchable joy”, with “pedal-note passages, more folk instruments, more bells, impossibly huge leaps…”
And as Steven writes, having completed this glorious cycle, Bach probably just
put down his pen and went out to rehearse, or to repair his harpsichord quill plectrums; or perhaps he settled down to a convivial dinner involving singing with his family and friends, his next masterpieces already buzzing around in his head.
The book makes a fine companion, inviting a wide audience to immerse themselves in these miraculous suites.
As defined in ethnomusicology, zithers are diverse. In my recent post I outlined the various zither types under the Sachs-Hornbostel system: bar, tube, raft, board, trough, frame. Worldwide, plucked zithers are common (note the “Zither” entry in The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments), but bowed zithers seem quite rare. Half-tube board zithers, both plucked and bowed, are distinctive to East Asia.
Its precursor was the scheitholt, dating back to the 14th century—which might lead us down the path of early north European zithers like the hummel and épinette de Vosges, as well as the Appalachian dulcimer (see this article on the excellent Essential Vermeer site, which I introduce here); and moving further east, the cimbalom family (including the tsymbaly of Hutsuls in Ukraine), as well as a wealth of Baltic psalteries!
From The New Grove dictionary of musical instruments, “Zither” entry.
The Alpine zither is sometimes bowed as well as plucked. Here’s an example:
I’m drawn to the Alpine bowed zither by a personal connection. Rudi Rieber (1934–2004), father of My Brilliant Friend Augusta, taught himself to play the Konzertzither in his youth.He was brought up in Winterlingen in the Swabian Alps south of Tübingen. There, as his daughter explains:
My watchmaker grandfather Wilhelm had a clock-and-silverware shop. One day around 1940 a gypsy woman purchased something there, for which in return she offered to barter her zither. My father Rudi, then 5 or 6 years old, watched her demonstrating how it was to be played, both plucked and with the bow. Later he also taught himself to play the violin, guitar, and mouth-organ.
Left, Rudi Rieber, 1994;
right, Rudi’s grandson Selim, 2000, at the age of 7,
shortly before he followed the path of jazz/rock/pop drumming…
In 1994 Rudi recorded a series of songs for his 60th birthday, inviting his former classmates. His spoken introduction reflects a sense of responsibility towards a tradition under threat. Recalling his childhood after the NSDAP took control of the municipality in 1933, he commented:
We were fortunate to still be taught many of these beautiful songs, and we can be happy that this treasure has been given to us. We are grateful to our teacher H.C. Seeger, who understood how to enrich our entire life—in times when folk-song was under the threat of being misused and replaced. With this recording I am attempting to weave a thread of our tradition from half a century ago down to today.
All this was in tune with the Wandervogelyouth movement from 1896. In protest against industrialisation, its ascetic devotees immersed themselves in the countryside, communing with nature; and Volkslied was at the heart of the movement. The Wandervogel groups were outlawed by the Nazis in 1933; so while it’s not immediately audible, we might almost regard the maintenance of this repertoire as a kind of underground preservation.
Augusta’s intrepid explorations of her father’s repertoire reveal how early and regional folk traditions became interlaced with the world of Mozart and Mahler.
Es, es, es, und es, es ist ein harter Schluss is a satirical apprentice’s song from the Wanderjahre repertoire (cf. Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen settings). The wiki entry on Es, es, es… details its reception history since the 19th century—this was one song that the Nazis did readily adopt, “apparently apolitical, describing the grievances of the previous century”, its catchy melody suitable for marching.
With the rich overtones, and the use of the bow, the material takes on a shimmering, ethereal patina. Here, after a plucked prelude, like an Alpine alap, Rudi adds the bow for a Schuhplattler dance:
This is the kind of domestic musicking quaintly evoked here:
* * *
Intriguingly, the piano is classified as a zither (Not a Lot of People Know That…)! Further to John Cage’s innovative use of the instrument, Stephen Scott (1944–2021) was a pioneer of the bowed piano. Here’s his Entrada:
Ha! There’s one angle that the ever-inventive Augusta, a fine pianist trained in Paris, still has to explore…
I’ve focused here on bowed zithers—but all right then, I guess we have to play out with the theme from The third man (1949), iconic soundtrack to an iconic film, plucked by Anton Karas:
The opening melody makes another worthy addition to my list of Unpromising chromaticisms (“write a staggeringly popular tune using only the five semitones within the range of a major third, with two chords”):
After university, during my few years as a regular extra with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the standard romantic classics took a back seat to the avant-garde repertoire. The orchestra’s focus on contemporary music was a feature of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music, particularly from 1971 with Pierre Boulez as principal conductor.
While I was well up for new repertoire, not all of it was inspiring. Concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and the Proms offset the orchestra’s studio recordings at Maida Vale, but many players felt that in taking a steady 9-to-5 job they had sacrificed their hard-earned skills at the altar of modernity. The canteen breakfast was often the high point of the day. As principal horn player Alan Civil recalled,
We did about 80% modern and 20% classical. The awful tragedy, for the orchestra, was that eventually we were not able to play the standard classics. We could sight-read the most fearsome contemporary piece, but a Brahms symphony—embarrassing!
So apart from the occasional Mahler, my most memorable experiences with the band were playing lesser-known early 20th-century works like the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Bax’s Tintagel—and the Lyric symphony by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) (see here, and wiki).
A protégé of Brahms—their clarinet trios were paired at this year’s Proms—Zemlinsky went on to thrive in Vienna, working with Schoenberg, his brother-in-law. He was among Alma Schindler’s suitors before she married Mahler in 1902. In 1905 (the year after the premiere of Ravel‘s Shéhérazade, FWIW), Zemlinsky composed his symphonic poem-fantasy Die Seejungfrau:
Written partly to exorcise his failed relationship with Alma, Die Seejungfrau was premiered at the same concert as Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The latter is another fine piece that I relished in Boulez’s interpretation with the BBC—here he conducts it with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 2003.
Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande is not just filled with wrong notes, in the sense of Strauss’s Don Quixote; it is a fifty-minute long protracted wrong note. This is to be taken literally. What else may hide behind these cacophonies is quite impossible to find out.
In my post on Erich Korngold, I mentioned Richard Taruskin’s 1994 essay “The golden age of kitsch”, where he reviews CDs of Korngold’s Das wunder der Heliane and Ernst Krenek’s 1937 “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf [Jonny goes to town, or Jonny strikes up]. So here I’ll introduce the latter.
Alex Ross (The rest is noise, Chapter 6 “City of nets: Berlin in the 20s”) provides background.
For a little while in the late 20s, Krenek acquired certifiable, almost Gershwin-like celebrity. […] Like so many young Austrians and Germans, he yearned to break out of the hothouse of Romantic and Expressionist art, to join the milling throngs in the new democratic street.
Taruskin’s typically polemical essay is worth citing at some length.
The Nazi concept of artistic degeneracy was incoherent and opportunistic, and so is Decca/London’s marketing strategy. It took very little to run afoul of the Nazis then, and it costs very little to deplore them now. Their opposition, especially when it was passively incurred, conferred no distinction, unless their approval is thought to confer distinction on the likes of Beethoven or Wagner. There are no lessons to be learned from studying the Nazi index of banned musical works, which, like the Nazi canon, contained masterpieces, ephemerae, kitsch, and trash, covering a wide stylistic and ideological range. […]
So just this once let’s forget the Nazis. They had nothing to do with Krenek’s opera or Korngold’s opera. They didn’t even ban them. They didn’t have to ban them, for both works had fallen out of the repertory by 1933. […]
What makes these first [CD] releases fascinating is not what they have to say about the Nazis but what they have to say about the artistic atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, which had a thriving operatic economy—the last truly thriving, that is, consumption-driven, economy in the history of opera. Composers wrote for a market. Their work was in demand. They strove not for eventual immortality but for immediate success. Producers could recoup their investment in new works and sometimes exceed it, so they sought out new works. Premieres were more noteworthy than revivals, and commanded the interest of the press.
Was this a degenerative ecology? Did it lead to exploitative “populist” formulas, or to weak imitation? No, it was synergistic; it led to experimentation and to emulation, with the aim of surpassing previous standards of novelty and distinction.
He goes on to note the great success of operas like Berg’s Wozzeck (for Lulu, see here). But even more popular was Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf. Still, Taruskin describes what strikes me as a common trait of WAM until the late 19th century:
Sudden eclipse was part of the bargain. An opera had its place in the sun if it managed to earn one, and then it moved out of the way.
He attributes the waning of this nurturing operatic ecology to the talkies:
The movies did not only preempt the operatic audience. At a profound level, the movies became the operas of the mid- to late 20th century, leaving the actual opera houses with a closed-off museum repertoire and a specialised audience of aficionados, rather than a a general entertainment public hungry for sensation. With the advent of the sound film, opera found its preeminence as a union of the arts compromised and its standing as the grandest of all spectacles usurped. […]
Cinematic transport to distant times and climes was instantaneous. Evocative atmosphere, exotic or realistic, could be more potently conjured up on film than on the best-equipped operatic stage, and the narrative techniques of the movies were unprecedentedly flexible and compelling. […]
But wait, isn’t there another difference, a bigger one? Opera, however, popular, remains an art, while movies, or at least Hollywood movies, are a mass-produced and mass-reproduced medium and amount only to kitsch. Or so we are told. I am not so sure.
The operatic world from which Korngold and Krenek emerged, like the wider world of art in the period following the Great War, was a bitterly divided world. The division was not simply between stylistic radicalism and conservatism, or between a liberating iconoclasm and a hidebound tradition, though that is how a stubbornly Whiggish historiography continues to represent it. Nor was it primarily a division between a senile romanticism and a new classicism, as so many artists of the time liked to say. It was, rather, a difference in the way that art was viewed in relation to the world.
Citing the early Soviet critic Boris Asafyev:
An authentic modern music would have to be “nearer to the street than to the salon, nearer to the life of public actuality than to that of philosophical seclusion”,
Taruskin goes on to contrast the operas of Korngold and Krenek:
Though they are being marketed now under a crude common rubric, they embodied antithetical values.
“Now-opera” was not simply a matter of contemporary action, of references to current events and American pop-genres (shimmies, tangos, blues, Negro-spiritualen) and pop-timbres (sax, banjo), though these were the grounds for Jonny’s immediate audience appeal and its subsequent (misleading) reputation as a “jazz opera”. Its main novelty was irony: the clash between the ephemeral content and the “classical” form. And this implied another, more fundamental clash: in place of the music of timeless inner feeling, its unabating fluidity of tempo dissolving chronometric reality, there was now to be a music that proceeded just as unabatingly through through busy ostinatos at what Krenek at one point labelled “schnelles Grammophon-tempo”, emphasising uniformity of physical and physiological motion and banshing psychology. It was a music of corporeal elation and spiritual nihilism, a tonic for the tired and the disillusioned, for people who felt betrayed by the lie of transcendence. It was, in short, the music not of America but of “Americanism”. And so the now-opera was not really sachlich after all but still märchenhaft, embodying not a new reality but a new fairy tale, a new allegory and, yes, a new kitsch.
In Jonny spielt auf, the first now-opera, the allegory is overt and sledge-hammer-subtle. The protagonist is not the title character—a negro band-leader vaguely modeled, it seems, on Sam Wooding, whose Chocolate Kiddies Revue swept Germany in 1925–26—but Max, a Central European composer of traditional transcendental bent.
As the glacier-like Max pursues banjo-playing operatic diva Anita (an evocation of Anna Mahler, to whom Krenek was briefly married), Jonny attempts to steal the enchanted Amati violin of Daniello, a slick, matinee-idol classical virtuoso.
A tiny leitmotif, just a descent through the interval of a fourth to a downbeat, pervades everything. (Anyone who has heard Ravel’s “jazz”-tinged L’enfant et les sortilèges of 1925 will recall this very distinctive idea as the “Maman!” motif. Did Krenek?).
Finally Max, his glacier persona melting, sets off with Anita for America, whither Krenek followed in 1938.
Here’s a playlist of excerpts:
Actually, the opera is far from the accessible populism of The threepenny opera (1928), and jazz plays a very minor role—not least because when Krenek “conceived his libretto, he had never met a Negro or an American”. What he set out to provide was “a hope-inspiring Pied Piper, or a latter-day Papageno, as alluringly Other as possible”.
The everyday, the ephemeral, and the phenomenal […] could function convincingly within the world of opera only as an exotic import. By its very presence, it was exceptional, numinous, and threatening. So now-opera was stil, opera. It could only be a special case, a subgenre; and it could not escape the fate of the genre as a whole.
Taruskin finds the opera dubious politically too:
The freedom celebrated at the end of Jonny spielt auf is only the freedom to seek new masters, to submit to a new hypnosis.
He notes the tendency to forgive both the operas of both Korngold and Krenek their cynicism.
The indulgence, it seems pretty clear, is purchased courtesy of the Nazis. Take away their seal of disapproval, and we are left not with easily dismissed “degeneracy” but with decadence, which is more real, more disquieting, and much harder to get a grip on.
This was the downside of the thriving consumer culture that, in our day, with opera a walking corpse, seems at first so enviable. But this was a culture of frisson and titillation posing as a culture of liberation and uplift.
Going rather far in imputing a moral purpose for “serious music” (“The danger of Taruskin”?!), he suggests:
However it may tickle our sense of irony to contemplate it, and even if we choose to excuse its practitioners on grounds of naïveté or sincere bad taste, it entailed a lack of moral purpose that rendered the “serious” arts defenceless against totalitarian rhetoric, and passively complicit in its triumph.
Given Krenek’s hazy acquaintance with the world he was evoking, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Real Thing (more leads under Clarke Peters’ radio series on black music in Europe): here’s the Sam Wooding band with Shanghai shuffle in 1925 Berlin (leading us nicely to Shanghai jazz):
A cuckolding libertine pushes the husband of his mistress to his death in the cogs of a monstrous machine and strangles her when he finds out she has become a promiscuous prostitute, whereupon the foreman, Machinist Hopkins, dismisses him from his job, ostensibly for inefficiency.
In China, the “orthodox” vocal liturgy of both Buddhist and Daoist temples has been thought to be properly accompanied only by ritual percussion (see e.g. here, and here)—just as in Islam and Christianity.
Although many temple and household ritual groups further incorporate melodic instrumental ensemble, the core practice among household ritual specialists is vocal liturgy with percussion.
Some of these were composed for church services (and I haven’t even begun to broach the riches of Bach motets…); but as we move through the 19th century, pieces also began to be written for the quasi-secular setting of the concert stage.
Among the highlights of this year’s Proms was John Wilson‘s stimulating programme with the reborn Sinfonia of London (shown on BBC4, on i-Player).
After Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture (a favourite of the incomparable Carlos Kleiber), Francesca Chiejina sang the exquisite Seven early songs (1905–08) of Alban Berg. As a polar opposite of the overture, Wilson continued with Ravel’s disturbing La valse (1920), depicting “a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future”, in the words of Alex Ross.
As a prodigy in Vienna, Korngold was praised by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Puccini. Making his name with the opera Die tote Stadt, he was a prominent figure in the lively theatrical scene of the 1920s, going on to collaborate with Max Reinhardt. Having commuted between Vienna and Hollywood since 1934, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938 Korngold realised that it would be impossible for him and his family to continue living in Austria. In the USA his film scores soon came to define the Hollywood sound. As Michael Haas comments,
he found himself mugged by both realities—commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time.
It’s unfortunate that Korngold himself subscribed to the notion that “serious music” could only reside in the symphonic tradition—to which he returned after retiring disillusioned from film in 1947, but still writing in a romantic style that had plummeted from fashion after the war. Even Messiaen‘s Turangalîla (1949), challenging yet sensual, was met with negative reviews; Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître was premiered in 1955.
So pieces such as Korngold’s Violin concerto (1947) were received patronisingly. Whatever the zeitgeist was, this wasn’t it; much as we all love late romanticism, surely this was too late?! (cf. the ever-later early music).
“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value.
Ross gives thoughtful background in Chapter 8 (“Music for all”) of The rest is noise, under “Hollywood music” and “Exile music”. Richard Taruskin is always worth reading too: in The danger of music (§33, “The golden age of kitsch”) he thickens the plot by contrasting Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane with Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf, both from 1927.
Perhaps the weird twin burdens among WAM aficionados of expecting both background knowledge and linear progress can be eased by imagining Korngold’s late works as composed before the war, as if he were a Rachmaninoff or a Zemlinsky. At least, it would be sad not to allow oneself to relish the symphony’s gorgeous slow movement (and in Haas’s post, do listen to Korngold playing the Adagio on the piano—as with Mahler’s piano rolls, one gets a sense of composition, improvisation).
Indeed, since Mahler was already fêted in New York by 1908 (see e.g. here and here), while it may be fruitless to speculate how his style might have evolved had he lived to the era of the 1930s’ talkies (one can hardly imagine that any more could be said after the 9th and 10th symphonies and Der Abschied), it’s intriguing to wonder whether he too would have been seduced by the lure of Hollywood…
As Haas observes, conflicts over modernity and populism were already hotly debated in 1920s’ Berlin and Vienna (cf. What is serious music?!);
The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema, or is it l’art pour l’art—a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely “disposable”?
So all this makes Korngold’s work grist to John Wilson’s mill. Here’s his 2019 recording of the symphony with the Sinfonia of London:
* Though it’s often described as “Symphony in F sharp major”, Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll notes that he was particular in casting the work in F sharp, without specifying either major or minor (cf. the story of the prison exam!). Nor should it be confused with F hashtag minor. Anyway, six sharps would be well above the legal limit on Sundays in Pennsylvania.
To complement John Eliot Gardiner’s Prom last week (shown on BBC4: on i-Player)
with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists:
Both Bach and Handel were born in 1685, and this Prom featured two of their early works, composed when they were 22 years old—both for Easter, indeed. 1707 was a fine vintage.
Bach’s cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden has long been among Gardiner’s signature pieces—it features in this post, where he also comments on his training with Nadia Boulanger.
Handel’s Dixit dominus has also been a regular showcase for Gardiner’s choir and orchestra over the decades. Amidst all the virtuosity, the heart of the piece is De torrente, the ravishing duet for two sopranos—repeated as an encore in the Prom, as in this performance from 2014:
For more on Gardiner’s early experiments with baroque style, see here, under “The world of early music”; his performances appear often in the posts under A Bach retrospective. For Handel arias, click here; for Rameau, born two years before of the “class of ’85”, here.
The visions emerging here make up a kind of Esperanto fiction—it’s most rewarding to follow the gnomic texts with the aid of the explanatory stories. Here’s a general introduction by Nick himself:
The anagram stories Stephen Jones has been resolutely issuing arose from a specific combination of circumstances. First, amongst professional classical music singers, the 80s and 90s were a high point for tours, residencies, and CD recordings, all of which furnished extended periods of having to sit patiently around—time used in various ways, crosswords, knitting, books and magazines; there were not yet smartphones or iPads, had they already existed it’s unlikely that these texts would ever have developed.
But in 1984 I had been introduced to the work of Georges Perec and the Oulipo, which added to my early enthusiasm for Mots d’heures: gousses, rames and an appreciation of word games of various sorts (though I never enjoyed or was much good at Scrabble, oddly: I think it was the element of competition which spoiled it). Such games had a much more serious aspect for me (as indeed, to a hugely greater extent, they did for Perec), through their function of creating “potential literature”—Oulipo is “Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle”, freeing up through constraints. Having always been keen on writing, I nevertheless had found myself unable, every time I tried, to write imaginative fictional narrative; what began as a collaborative pastime (many anagrams, and certainly the best ones, were deduced by colleagues, once I’d proposed a source text or name) gradually morphed into a generator of unlikely yet rigorously underpinned stories.
As to the process, during recording sessions etc. I collected from volunteers and compiled my own anagrams, which I then joined up in whatever form of narrative appeared possible, permitting myself any old punctuation but always (the few exceptions are noted in the text) sticking rigorously to the sequence of repeated anagram matrices, with the same x letters repeated each time, never overlapping nor transposing—no cheating for effect (however tempting). At first that was as far as I thought of going, but it soon appeared that there was another level of interpretation waiting to be exploited, the “potential literature”, and I spent some months, or even years (in the case of Lili Boulanger and Johann Sebastian Bach) extrapolating the story I felt the anagrams were perhaps telling.
In addition to the nine Steve has published, there are six more which survive—several were wholly or partly lost during the course of time and specifically in a fire in our house in Portugal which destroyed most of my papers (and books) in 2009: the survivals are in great part due to Steve himself, and Charles Pott, a notable contributor, who had kept copies, backed up by a handful I’d managed to consign to the internet (most of the stories also predate the days of web-based email).
These other pieces are:
Israel in Egypt (anagrams only, stitched together but without parallel text, 1989)
Die Entfuhrung (sic—no umlaut, nor the missing ‘e’ it would represent) / Aus dem Serail (introduction + anagrams only, 1991)
Salzburg (introduction + anagrams of Beethoven’s Leonore/Beethoven’s Fidelio + story, 1996—probably the most substantial piece of the whole run)
Alceste (raw anagram list + anagrams + story, 1999)
Merano (intro + raw anagram list + anagrams + story + epilogue, 2000)
Oslo (raw anagram list + anagrams + sort of story + epilogue/more story, 2000).
These last two were envisaged as being integral parts of my reactions to the celebrations at the time of the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, and the many concerts in which I took part during that year. The last anagram piece I wrote of this sort (there’s since been an acrostic anagram sonnet for Fernando Pessoa) was indeed Johann Sebastian Bach, compiled between 2000 and 2021. There’s a hope that the complete set may eventually interest a publisher…
I still can’t write (and don’t believe I have written) fiction. I was just following where the letters led me.
Nicolas Robertson, August 2021.
* * *
[SJ:] With my penchant for zany indexing (see here, and here), I can’t resist compiling a selective general index of some of the more striking people, places, and themes that adorn the plots so far (just the anagrams, not the extrapolations!), and allowing characters to mingle freely after being trapped within the bonds of the individual stories that generated them. In the absence of page references, you can have fun working out which tales the entries belong to.
To many, the programme on Mahler may sound like heresy. I can live with Esfahani challenging the idolising of Handel and Mendelssohn—indeed, I keep meaning to pen a similar tirade against Vivaldi’s vacuous four-square footling around with arpeggios (Fellow-iconoclast Nigel Kennedy: “Hendrix is like Beethoven, Vivaldi is more Des O’Connor”). Beethoven too, ably demolished by Susan McClary, seems to me like fair game. The reviews assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky in Lexicon of musical invective make an engaging, comical catalogue of early critics’ incomprehension of the great works of WAM from Beethoven to Stravinsky (including Mahler—see e.g. under Mahler 4); I’m even keen to question the hegemony of WAM generally.
But when Esfahani questions the symphonies of Mahler, I can only assume he’s totally deranged. One might imagine him as some heartless cerebral professor tinkling away on baroque fugues, but far from it.
His five fatuous headings should prompt any music-lover to switch off at once:
I can’t remember a single one of his tunes
When he decides to write a tune it just degrades into kitsch or schmaltz
His orchestrations are consistently bizarre, to no discernible end
What’s with all this hypothesising and posing of musical questions…?
Mahler’s symphonies are endless…
To each of these questions in turn we may respond “WTF???” (for a similar appraisal of medieval estampies by a church janitor, see here).
Sure, it sounds like fun to ruffle the feathers of generations of godlike maestros (Bernstein, Tennstedt, Abbado, Rattle, Salonen, and so on and on: see under Conducting: a roundup), scholars like Henry-Louis de La Grange, and pundits like Norman Lebrecht, whose book Why Mahler? makes an engaging introduction.
While “Esfahani acting dumb” seems like a flimsy peg to hang a programme on, it’s not as fatuous as it sounds. Gradually we gather that he may be playing devil’s advocate, as he shows himself amenable to conductor Joshua Weilerstein’s arguments for the defence. We hear generous excerpts from the symphonies that, pace Esfahani, may even win new adherents to the Mahler fan club; and they have some interesting comments on changing performance practice. Weilerstein uses the 9th symphony to try and dispel Esfahani’s strange incomprehension of Mahler’s visionary orchestration; and one wonders how a sensitive musician can possibly be immune to the profundity of Mahler’s juxtaposition of spiritual and profane. But in the end Esfahani shows himself open to enlightenment.
Perhaps Radio 3 concocted a contrarian tone because they thought yet another eulogy seemed too predictable. Go on then, give us programmes on “What’s the big deal about Bach anyway?”, “Mozart—was he just fooling around?” and “The harpsichord—it goes plunk, it goes plink”… *
The concept is highly reminiscent of Philomena Cunk‘s interview technique (“Did Shakespeare write boring gibberish with no relevance to our world of Tinder and peri-peri fries—or does it just look, sound and feel that way?”).
Portrait of Bach seated at the organ, 1725. Source.
Bach was renowned for his improvisations on the organ, and organists today still continue the tradition that has become attenuated in other branches of WAM (see Unpacking “improvisation”). So in an invigorating Sunday-morning Prom (on BBC i-Player until the end of August), Martin Baker alternated his own improvisations on organ works by Bach with the original pieces—which presumably had a life as improvisations before he committed them to paper.
Of course, whereas Bach himself improvised in the tradition of his time (in the style of… Bach!), today’s organists improvising on his music have the whole diverse soundscape since then as their palette, though Baker opted for a relatively traditional language (indeed, some modern players like Robert Levin on fortepiano even improvise in the style of Mozart). Baker ended with a stimulating improvisation on English melodies familiar to the Prommers.
Here he is with an earlier, um, medley on Bach themes:
He was standing in for Oliver Latry, for whose remarkable performances *do* refer to my post on French organ improvisation—which also includes his elaboration on the B-A-C-H motif, as well as a film of Messiaen himself at the age of 76 playing three resplendent improvisations!!!
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
Prelude—SJ The grand finale of this third trio of anagram tales, this wonderful fantasy is much informed by Nick’s own research on Bach, with plentiful allusions to the 2000 Bach Cantata Pilgrimage among his typically diverse cast.
* * *
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH Series of concerts and recordings December 1999 –January 2001, 250th anniversary celebration of Bach through his church cantatas, performed each on the liturgical calendar day for which they were written, in places as closely as feasible linked with the original performances; or with the composer himself; or with places dear to or chosen by the director of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, John Eliot Gardiner. English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, multiple vocal and instrumental soloists.
J.S. Bach Denkmal, Arnstadt.
Impossible to encapsulate JSB in an anagram, and I didn’t think of doing so, I reckon, until some time into 2000. The letters were not inviting, as well as too many to control; but on one long bus journey Stephen Varcoe came up with the gem included below, and I understood I had to have a reciprocal try.
Compiling the anagrams took the whole of that year, on and off; the parallel story has taken a bit longer. A substantial part was in place by 2003, John Eliot Gardiner’s 60th birthday, when I submitted an early version of the finale. But the ‘story’ hadn’t been committed to any imperishable medium, and was lost in our 2009 fire. (The anagrams, such as they were, haphazardly survived in a disc I made when leaving the computer on which I’d typed them in London, in 2007, and miraculously had the nous to send to myself by e-mail before the fatal day).
The commentary, though substantially already imagined, has necessarily had to be re-derived, sometimes from scratch, over the subsequent two decades. It follows what I can remember of the original apprehensions, from the anagram matrix, and carrying on…
146 anagrams, in strict rotation. Here goes my 19-letter Passacaglia, followed by a Fantasia on the same ground:
“Abbot – Jenni – a Hans Sachs, an Aachen hobbit’s…” Jan: “Noh ! Banshei! a JSB cantata beano!” Nin has J.S. Bach in sash, Ecbatana john. B-Beth, John: “Anabasis? Can John B., a Sachsen Ta’iban, ban Nash Hanseatic job?” “Bach Iona’s best, Jan.” “Nah” – Jan. “Bach? Iona? SHAN’T!” EBS nab Bach, astonish Jane, bin John’s Sabata ache. N.J.: “I, the Hon. N., ban ACAS, as ban a snobbish Janet, ach.” Ban cane? John abstains: can’t bash a shinbone, ja. “Josh has a BBC antenna—I ban he in sonata.”
* * *
J.S. Bach: “Bassinet, banjo, ha ha, c’n-can sahib…” “The banjo’s an – a ! – Johann Schein sabbat…” Johann Sebastian: “Ah!…”
“Bless you!” – Johann has sneezed, perhaps. “Thanks. Makes me think that ‘praise’ is the root of it, yes.”
A musicologist writes: “I like Bach’s praise music best when it lines up with a non-violent pre-Christian ethical world-view.” “Practitioners of which used to be harried, a bit less now, I hope. But couldn’t we extend ‘Osanna’ –” “Excuse me, there’s an H in Hebrew: it’s Hosanna.” There’s no agreement, curse it; discussion of praise music founders.
* * *
“What? is that really so, Anna?” Sebastian exclaims. Anna, a bit sheepishly, has told Johann she’s pregnant. “Wow, what a girl!” Sebastian cries – and exits to take evensong. His cousin, another Johann, who’s with them today (the Bachs come and go between each other familiarly), reassures Anna, “He’s like the boss in the old Eisenach days!” Sebastian nips back in, looking for a rebus he’s made for the St John. “I like this small shift in harmony, could provide a laugh.” “But where do you get that B natural from?” Johann pleads. “Oh, it’s ok, just listen to the bass line”—Sebastian likes to tease the older Eisenach generation. Jan, whose connection is unclear but who’s obviously entitled to be there and equally obviously allies with the conservative faction, asks “Do you really have the qualifications to risk this?” Anna cuts this off with a cheery “A mad Cantor job, that’s what he has. But Sebastian’s not finished yet, ARE YOU?” Bach, who’s taken off his top to put on his cassock—looking touchingly informal, in his jute trousers—responds seriously, “Look, I’ve been making my way up, as if I were Christ without yet the New Testament. But, oh god, there does seem to be no end to the work that has to be done…” “Right, but you spend your time making fugues! Sod that…” Sebastian laughs, he’s above this, and turns to Anna, with an offer he knows she finds it hard to resist, “How about a game of chess before the service?” Anna’s all confused, thinking she’d been left out of the conversation, “Well, if you think there’s time – yes – thanks – ok –” Johann’s happy to know the two are on the same wavelength.
* * *
“I knew Herr Jahn,” the taxi driver confided, “he was a stalwart of the judiciary, but wasn’t averse to a joint or two, or a subsidy from the space programme. Speaking of which, can I tempt you, Herr Behan?” “As long as you don’t go on about free jazz. I’ve had enough of Lloyd Webber, fin-de-siècle musicals don’t make sense to me, any more than japonaiserie. Scare off African potentates, that’s what I’m here for.” Noting a coolish reception from the driver, Behan temporises, “that’s a joke I heard in South Africa…” but he couldn’t resist breaking into song, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’… He’s delivered safely to the British Council, where the staff ask if he’ll be referring to Bach, whose year it is. “You what? As far as I’m concerned, let the whole Bach family go and enjoy themselves in a Yugoslav thermal brothel.” Janet, an intern, asks “Oh, do you think Mrs Bach would go along with that? I wouldn’t accept it, sounds like dodgy Middle Eastern sanitation.” But Behan is imperturbable, and he spots a nun he recognises: “Join me in a joint, Hannah? Abbess and all?” An abbot across the room has heard this, and calls over with words echoing Lorenzo’s in The Merchant of Venice, “Go for it, lass!” (no one had ever heard the Abbess’s real first name before, Jessica) – “How sweetly sleeps…” Hannah/Jessica, liberated, cries “Bliss!”, and her ‘son’ (presumably an acolyte monk) echoes. The abbot, after veering inexplicably into Indian subcontinental politics (or can that be where he met Jessica, now Hannah, abbess?), launches “Do you remember that devilish monoplane, oh, how we laughed! Jess, ok Hannah, you’re the one who knew about plants, even got a degree for them!”
– across a few centuries, Johann in Leipzig wonders if Sebastian shouldn’t have got a qualification from the Greek academy, for a start
– but for the value of a university degree, I ask you to consider Joanna Hitchens (and I ask her indulgence).
* * *
Meanwhile, in Chichester, the cathedral organist, coolly sceptical, opines over sherry after Sunday Matins, “The US secret services have gone pear-shaped.” That’s what we would expect from the Hitchens brothers, vying with each other for conspiracies. “Wouldn’t you have liked to be a politician?”, JB is asked. Well, yes, he’d had his chance. There are some quite outspoken guests, among them associates of the Dean who’d served in the army in SE Asia. I already overhead Jessica mentioning an Indian spin bowler, plus Alan Ladd, and the Boston founding fathers (oh the bright new dawn long promised, those slave traders who spoke only with god) – “I remember when I told Helena Blavatsky that Jinnah wasn’t going to be content without a sea port.” “But Jinnah was one of us!” “Yes, British education, qualifications…” “One could buy them. And look how that’s turned into nationalist Hindu free-loading.” “Thinking of the Hinduists, I just ordered a beef skewer takeaway, image of the Taj Mahal, that National Trust signpost, in mind. But do you know what the man said? ‘You want a pork fry-up, with onions and chapati?’—what a twit!” “This is like infighting between freedom fighters,” interposed Jens, an old Indochina hand. “Netaji Bose thought it more important to oppose British colonialism than worry about alliances with the Third Reich or Japan—hero to Indian nationalists, ‘a common traitor’ to your father. Not sure how South African Gandhi supporters saw him, though.” “And what about another charismatic guru, Jens, my dear” – I hadn’t met this couple before, but they’re clearly keen to get out of the Vicars’ Close and enjoy their takeaway on the coast, they’ve booked a taxi—though they can’t bear to leave an argument, only had to because the taxi arrived. But as they go, a tantalising throwaway: “You know JSB sang at St John’s Cambridge, as a bass?” Annie Besant hears this, and to her credit can hardly believe it is so.
* * *
What you need to know about Bath Talk of Bath, and you talk first of John Nash, and Inigo Jones. But did Jones build more than a garden shed? While Nash, he saw Bath going up in the world, oh yes. (Still, I wouldn’t mind that shed, Jonathan, since you seem not to think much of it.) Neither of them planned a gambling resort, nor did the Oxford philosopher.
How fragile the past is! I remember a reception in the British Council home on the Île St Louis in Paris, where I and a colleague, our gestures becoming expansive with hospitality, knocked a crystal ashtray off a mantelpiece, which shattered distressingly around our feet. Our hostess was impeccable, she had it cleared up in no time, and told us, “Please don’t worry, the person who gave it to us is dead now anyway.”
This makes me think of memorable images, and how they can fade. Saab – who remembers those stylish cars? The Shah of Iran? The Indian restaurant in York where I saw Victor Lewis- Smith once successfully pay with a library card? Tony Benn’s memoirs tell (or would if they hadn’t been redacted) of a Jesuit having a high old time in Saigon, ignoring both Indian and South African politicians, of whom one was a boil on the body politic—
I must have been muttering aloud to myself, for “A boil? did you hear that, Johanna? – and in Bath!” Jonathan went pale, at least to the level of his foundation make-up: “Let’s talk about Shakespeare. I’ve digitalised one of the love poems, it’s got that Keatsian rhyme-scheme, nicht war? like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Snark’ – ” “That’s a pretty fundamentalist interpretation.” “But avant-garde at the same time! Or eerie, like Quatermass, dig up and pin down the old evil!” John Eliot says this is an old set-to: “It’s all in the Golden Fleece.” “OK, but this is actual: Johanna’s tied up with the Israeli nationalists, a historic second-generation fighter, ten commandments set in st—” “—yes, but it didn’t start there. Long before, an exogamous queen, after her own pleasure…” “Jan, can you give us an up-to-date secular run-down on this?” “Ok, if you can keep up, it’s a bit convoluted. Jesus Christ, who is deathless, is the metaphorical son of John the Baptist and Solomon’s mother. This transgression is compensated for by the fecundity of the fat bulls each brought to the union, right? It’s fair to say though that the prophet Jonah felt personally humbled by this deal.” “Till he was spoon-fed by the Pentagon.” “Not to speak of limitless supplies of peyotl, big boss.” “Fine, Jen, but I’d like you to know there are other virtues in plants:
Fava, runner, haricot bean, Makes a donkey an Indian Queen”
“Yevtushenko? A witch’s spell?” “A song for active meditation?” “Look at it this way. A Pakistani bowler once thrilled Cuban observers in the earthy olive groves of Andalusia (in those days when Cubans played cricket, not baseball). Anna, now living under another name, deliberately neglected to insist Jacob put on the condom. These are accidents, perhaps determinant, of history. Does that make Bacon, who predicated binary computing machines, a predeterminist? Did it have to be this way? Did you have to carry to the end your existential antagonism with the white whale? Was the story only ever you/it/he/she?”
Joanna, looking on aghast, sympathises with Gertrude Stein’s abdication, after much struggle and play, in the face of so many letters.
* * *
The final set of borrowed (burrowed?) images includes a small, rather sad, cricket vignette—as is apparently inevitable, my medium seems to have a predictable set of stand-bys. This one can be quite precisely situated: it’s the time of the infamous match-fixing scandals involving the South African cricket set-up and specifically the captain, Hanse Cronje, a fine upstanding batsman who went dismally wrong. I think there was a tournament in Arabia at about this time where for once the authorities showed their teeth—who knows if they bit all those responsible?
But JSB himself was not immune to unruly behaviour (though I don’t have reason to think corruption as such was ever attributed—hot temper and intolerance perhaps, and a tendency to collar the Thomas-Kirche’s calligraphy ink allowance). Perhaps he didn’t take it so well, when a colleague heard a theme he was working on—curiously redolent of the ‘Dies Irae’—and wondered whether there was enough substance in it. (Another sketch adumbrates a clearly Beethovenian motif, which just shows one can never know what may give fruit later, and furthermore that minimalism goes hand-in-hand with polyphony).
* * *
Sebastian and Anna are playing games with making up cantata titles—they’re both a bit fired up by absinthe. [We too used to do this: I recall, from Stephen Varcoe and/or Richard Savage, Mein Stimme ist mit Scheiss bedeckt, and Ach Gott, du stehts auf meinen Fuß.]
“How about Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?” “Brilliant! A bit over the top, but go for it!” There’s an apprentice with them, who can’t quite follow this, and wonders if they should keep off the anis. “Anna,” says Johann, “don’t you think that’ll put us on the best-seller lists, truly?” Nathan’s insulted by any suggestion of selling-out, and threatens who knows what sort of mayhem. Sebastian, calm, just says to Anna, “Don’t worry—he has this old idea of Indo-European hierarchy.” Though he then swore softly; but I won’t transcribe what he said, it sounded a bit crazy to me.
* * *
Somewhere, a little while before the Bach Pilgrimage, the office are discussing progress with the idea. They’ve got a highly placed cleric, a beloved singer, a small wizz-kid from Aix-la-Chapelle… Jan, who’s everywhere, says “Think of Japanese theatre! We’ll go down singing in glory! It’ll be a great Bach-fest!” Nin immediately imagines scenes with Sebastian dressed in exotic robes, in some sort of Persian latrine. Beth (I stammer as I address her, I’m so nervous, especially as John’s with her) questions the concept of ‘anabasis’, return to the source – “Do we think that Sebastian, who is by way of being a Thuringian fundamentalist, would accept a British makeover of a Baltic town?” We’re called back to the matter in hand. “I’m sure we should concentrate on Iona as a high point, Jan.” “Sorry, I personally won’t be doing Iona.” And so the English Baroque Soloists get the Iona gig, surprising Jane, and assuaging JEG’s problems with the recording. The Honourable representative intervenes to outlaw temporising views, ‘no industrial negotiation, and no smart-alecs either, phew’. Would she even rule out corporal punishment? JE keeps out of it, no knee-capping here. Most importantly, don’t let Radio 3 pirate this—I’ve spotted one of their mikes in the mix—watch out in the ‘Sancta Maria’!
* * *
“Do you know,” Sebastian murmured to Anna, “I can hear low clarinets, I can hear a strumming continuo instrument, wow, I can see the old masters dancing to our tune….” “That—guitar, is it?—can launch you and all your predecessors into a jamboree…” But JSB’s already hearing something else, is it birdsong, sounds from the future, from another country? “Ach, listen…”
“Johann? Sebastian? Hansi? Are you there? Oh…”
Ernest Thompson Seton, Lives of the Hunted (1902).
Nicolas Robertson, 2000 –2021.
 Anagram by Stephen Varcoe.  Anagram by Charles Pott.  The penultimate bar, violins: AAAA.  Amongst the stranded letters in the final anagram, I’d already realised that ETS could mean Ernest Thompson Seton, a Canadian nature writer I’d loved when young; but I had no idea what the still unattributed letters (CB CBB) could do until I looked him up in the British Library.
*For an introduction to my whole series on Mahler, with links, click here!*
Early piano rolls offer an intriguing but elusive glimpse into the sound-world of early-20th-century composers (see Clair de lune).
It’s always frustrating that we don’t have recordings of Mahler himself conducting his symphonies. But stopping off in Leipzig in 1905 on his way home to Vienna after a performance of the 2nd symphony in Berlin, he recorded a session on piano roll, reproduced with the new Steinway Welte-Mignon system. It includes
Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (from 3.05)
Of course, being familiar with Mahler’s opulent orchestrations, one has to adjust to the limited instrumental timbre; but it’s wonderful to hear his music closer to the source of his inspiration, free of the crowd-control necessitated by conducting a large orchestra. He plays the 4th with a flexible, improvisatory feel that is hard to achieve with clarinet and voice accompanied by orchestra. And he relishes the extreme, manic contrasts of the 5th symphony.
More comments here and here. And here’s a short documentary from the Gustav Mahler Museum in Hamburg.
See also the remarkably effective chamber arrangements of Mini-Mahler.
As to the German anthem, Joseph Haydn composed Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser in 1797, in honour of Francis II of the Austro-Hungarian empire (wiki here and here). After the song became the national anthem of Germany from 1841, the lyrics continued to go through several revisions under successive regimes.
Written in response to Britain’s plodding God save the king * (superior suggestions here), it’s among several melodies of Haydn said to be inspired by a Croatian folk-song. The song alone outranks the British anthem, but Haydn soon elevated it as the theme for variations in the transcendent slow movement of his Kaiser quartet—tastefully played here by the Quatuor mosaïques:
With All Due Respect, renditions at football internationals don’t quite rise to such heights. But of course, chamber music and football matches serve different functions…
It was one of the very first symphonies that I played with my local youth orchestra. Hard as it is to put aside the jaded accumulations of convention and the Hovis ad, I was reminded how remarkable it is in concert at the Barbican in 2015—as if one could wish for anything more after hearing the divine Hélène Grimaud play the Ravel piano concerto in the first half.
The symphony was commissioned by the New York Phil during Dvořák’s stay as director of the National Conservatory there from 1892 to 1895—when he also composed the cello concerto. At a time when white settler-colonialists were busy taming the Native Americans they hadn’t already massacred, anthropologists like the Franz Boas circle were taking such indigenous cultures seriously. Dvořák too proclaimed an interest in Native American music and African-American spirituals:
I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.
However, while he may have heard Iroquois performers in Prague in 1879, in the States he had little exposure apart from hearing the African-American student Harry Burleigh at the Conservatory singing spirituals for him. Indeed, commenting on the symphony, Dvořák wrote:
I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.
In the melodic lines of both late romantic and popular music, upward leaps of both minor and major 7ths are common—the latter is a particularly striking expressive feature.
A few instances, over sumptuous harmonies: Mahler relished the interval, such as in the finale of the 9th symphony:
andRichard Strauss favoured it too, such as this glorious passage in Ein Heldenleben, where the massed horns hijack the recapitulation, with a repeated phrase ending in a minor 7th leap, then—amidst heady modulation—yet another one, culminating in a blazing major 7th:
I’ve already offered you Carlos Kleiber‘s version(with the above passage from 23.39); here’s Mengelberg and the New York Phil in 1928 (from 25.00):
And a gorgeous major 7th leap adorns the glowing string melody of the slow finale (from 35.40, in three flats):
In the Four last songs, Beim Schlafengehen is animated by the leap—as at the opening, in the gorgeous dialogue between violin and singer, and the final horn solo. Here’s the beginning of the violin solo (in five flats):
and the climax of the vocal part, with leaps of first a minor and then a major 7th:
The leap of a minor 7th can be highly expressive too, as in Billie Holiday’s extraordinary You’re my thrill.
Patsy Cline’s Crazy has some expressive intervals: the first phrase opens with a descending 6th (and then an A major arpeggio!), then the second phrase has a descending minor 7th followed by an ascending minor 7th on “crazy for feeling…”!
And I love the ascending minor 9th that opens Plus fort que nous in Un homme et une femme, leading to a sequence of ascending 7ths. The minor 9th leap pervades the 2nd movement of Mahler 5.
This tranquil interlude before the end of the 1st movement of Mahler 4 (Abbado’s performance there, from 14.30) has a succession of gorgeous leaps:
In 1991, among the countless performances commemorating the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, we performed the Requiemand the C minor Masswith John Eliot Gardiner and the amazing Monteverdi Choir (singing from memory!):
In the latter, note Anne Sofie von Otter in Laudamus te (from 10.41); and the Et incarnatus est (from 36.57) is gorgeous, culminating in Barbara Bonney’s cadenza with the wind soloists from 42.55.
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
Prelude—SJ This is Nick’s longest treatment so far in this series, almost a novella—subsuming the Middle Eastern conflict, Free France, the Cathars, Jacques Brel, a furniture-making course, the UNESCO football team in Lagos, an organists’ outing, and Nubia—with a moving dénouement. See also my own tributes to Lili and Nadia.
* * *
LILI BOULANGER French composer (1893–1918), younger sister of Nadia (1887–1979). Concerts and recording, 1999, with the LSO and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner (who studied with Nadia).
192 anagrams, in strict sequence, of the 13-letter matrix, followed by an explanatory ‘story’, in whatever language came to hand.
This is no.11 of the anagram pieces I composed between 1989 and 2002; it’s the first, I would say, in which I attempt to go beyond a strict mapping of anagram/story, and venture into some narrative of my own. In my overall introduction to the series, I explain why it was precisely my inability to do this (write a freehand story) which lay behind my adoption of anagrammatic ‘automatic writing’. My excuse is that the scenes glimpsed elliptically in the course of the anagrams suggested to me larger panoramas, which I needed to explore more extensively to be fair to the letters’ fragmentary vision.
So for the Albi section in particular I resorted to some autobiographical material (and a fable from the Panchatantra), and for Lille too, where I was also influenced, in a generic way, by a story of J.L. Borges, as well as by the art nouveau heritage of the town itself.
The reader will judge better than I can the success of this strategy. I can’t regret deploying the associations which the anagrams themselves germinated, but the results leave me a bit ill at ease.
There’s another, quite distinct, circumstance to be taken into account with ‘Lili Boulanger’. I had completed the anagrams by the end of September 1999 (as indicated in the present text). The accompanying story took longer, and was put together over a period of a few more years, mostly during periods of work in London or on tour, though I believe it was substantially done by 2002. At any rate the whole piece had been completed, but only partially typed up (and put on a floppy disc) by 2007—and only up to the end of the Lille section of the story. This was the truncated part I had the wit to send to myself in an email: not all such accounts were web-based in those days. Our fire in Portugal in early 2009 destroyed not only most paper documents but also all floppy discs and CDs, as well as the computer itself and its hard disk.
Thus the final narrative sections, all after the Lille episode, have been reconstructed from memory during the last few years; they lack some of the detail which I know I had tracked down, specifically in Nubia and Egypt, but are as true to the original aperçus as I could manage.
* * *
LILI BOULANGER “O Rubin! Illegal! Ali’ll—” [Ben–Gurion].”I’ll…?” –Al. Our Begin: “Lo, ‘Bulgar’ Eli!” – I? “Olà! Irgun libel,” begin our Al, “Lil’ El Al lingo…” I rub liberal gun oil, a billion–Luger, bare loin. I gull Rabin: “Loge! Ulli! Liban grouille, Ulli Lego–brain.” Ulli anger boil. “U… obligé!” “Iran’ll bull IRA legion.” I? I’ll ogle urban guerrilla. “NB oil, Ali, oil–bungler, oil’ll ruin bagel…” “Liban gloire!” Ul… Leila gun brio! Luger—bon, I’ll – Aï!
* * *
Iron Gaulle: “Lib – ” Gaul libre? Loin. Berlin IOU gall; nul Albi gloire, Albi grenouille labouring, ill. Gaul—in Loire (blub)—la Loire! linger… No Gaul lib (il gain boule rill), all blue origin. Gr… beau lion ill. I long Brel, lui, à l’agile Libourne, Brel, la gui’nol. I—I, Raoul Belling—lui, Brel, a lingo: I unlog braille, I null Albi ogre, Balin. Le roi Lug! Lui!
* * *
“Boulle?” “All Gobelin, Rui. Burin goal, ille, ruling lobelia.” “Elgin—blur a loi?” “Ol’ Elgin burial.” “Ai! Gullible, Ron?” “Gullible on air. No liberal. Ugli?” Glen: “Oil o’ Blair, ‘u’ regional bill, Blair, lounge li…” “Ug. ‘Lionel’ Blair…” B.O.
Nigeria. Rogue ball: 1–nil. Eli blur in goal. Lor, il a bu! Nigel (Nigel A. Burillo): “Rolling, ’e, il a bu gill in Euro lab.” “Bull—ale origin. Ale or gin.” “I – ” “Bull!” Gin—rue Balliol. “Lo, binge lair,” lu our ill Belgian,Raul. “Gill, Niobe?” Niobe all girl, ‘u’, nubile gorilla. “I lug renal boil, I rung ill (Ebola), oiling rubella, ill—large bunion.” O, gullible air! “Ill, lurgi—o bane! I – I blur galleon…”
* * *
I go urban Lille, au boring Lille. Rob Lille gal in our Lille bang. I uni Lille Garbo—ubi Lille organ? L … Laure – boiling –
* * *
NUBIA ‘El Grillo’. Onager. Bill, lui, air lounge. “Bill?” “Ali, Reg? Bullion!” “Lor’!” “Ubi Agnelli?” “Gerona. Ibi Lull.” “Go—Iberian Lull? Olé, a bull–ring! I – I’ll bug aileron.” “Ignore Bill.” Lua. “I’ll ignore.” Blau, la lune, Rio glib. La lune – “Gil, biro.” “Nebula ?”—oil girl Gillian Rouble. “Leo, Libra, Gil nu?” “Bon, girl! Eulalie?” “Gloria in blu’, lo!” Alluring bile. “Banlieu, ol’ girl. A billion gruel.” “O, gruel in billabong!” Allure? “I lie—Goan Lilliburlero! Lug in Bali!” Ego all in blur, I, N. (‘Boileau’), grill brill. Louange? I ?? “Oi! Ungrillable! Bali rouille n.g., N.R.!” “Aioli–bulge!”—Lou. “Bengali rill. Gibier?” “Nul.” “Allô allô?” Lune. Big rig, blue lilo. I ran, un–label oil rig. “Oi!”—Niall, bugler. “U – ”, Ollie blaring, “lo urinal bilge.” Niall bougre, il, ignoble liar, lui, nubil, allegro, unlilo a gerbil (all Brie), oil gnu, ill Boer. In Gaul, longer alibi. Lua…
* * *
“Ole Bull,” I grin. Nubia—Rogé, Lill, “urbane Lill,” I go. Nullo Gabrieli—Iona. Lulli, Berg. ‘Go, Liu’ (‘Li’l Abner’), our lag Bellini—lo, Bellini ragù! Io liberal lung. Bing, Elli—(Raoul!)—Luba ‘il Re’. I long Gillian Loeb, ur–bell on ‘Liguria’. L. Borgia nulle. I, lorn… Lua. Liebig le loi… “Brian, lug our ale billing. ’lo, Lilian Grube!” “’lo!” I? I brung—alleluia!—Bollinger.
* * *
Böll: “Gin, Luria?” “Beluga.” Blini lager lou’. “Niro, Lil?” (e.g. Lil in labour). “Illiber’l guano.” “Brillig!” “Âne, Lou. Llaregub loin,” il gribouille. An alien lour, glib. “Lo, B. Luini glare!” “B. Luini allegro—Luigi, no–baller.” “ ‘Lear’ bingo—Ulli?” “ ‘Blau, ill, Goneril – ’ ” “ ‘– Regan, boil’ ” (I lu) “ ‘I boil lung…’ ” “ ‘Lear’??”
* * *
Nile log burial… a bull religion, boiling laurel; bull, or—ii!—angel. Gabriel? No, lui, Logi, Belial—run! L…lo, Ariel bulgin’ (‘Ariel’: lu ‘goblin’, il a goblin lure), ‘l’Aiglon’ Uriel belabouring ill Lili –
Blue organ. INRI—gall—o blue Eboli lira lung. Un albergo, Lili… ur–billig, alone. Rouge bilan, Lil.
Lo, un Lili Grabe. Burial. Lil gone.
London, July–September 1999.
* * *
“No doubt I wasn’t the first,” wrote David Ben–Gurion in his (unpublished) memoirs, “to wish that my similarly–motivated colleagues would stay on the right side of the law. Wasn’t Menachem a case in point? How could we wish to give more ammunition to the Arabs? Yet the ethos of the group, the sensation that all were against us, militated against open–handedness. When I tried to draw their attention to this, I was met by precisely the sort of prejudiced stereotyping which should have proved my point. But under conditions of war, it seemed to us, the niceties of human discourse were dispensed with. I was called a self–styled Balkan priest, while another comrade thought even that was too good for me, that my Spanish exile was causing me to slander the underground movement, and that I stood, by now, for little more than a sort of Broadway in–flight–magazine Zionism…”
I was reading this as we sat in the control room, Rabin, Ulli the Lebanese Israeli, Ali the Israeli Arab. I hitched up my shorts so that the lubricating oil we used so plentifully wouldn’t stain the cotton, and carefully anointed my revolver. I knew it was the most reliable weapon we had, a gun in a thousand, and couldn’t resist teasing the others, who drew from lower down the armoury. “Wotan’s sidekicks! Vous ne comprenez pas that Lebanon’s up in arms, you building–block–head?” Ulli seethed, I could tell, but he knew he couldn’t let it out openly. “Th… thanks for the news.” “Khomeini’s mullahs will make the Irish cohorts look like dairy cows…” I wasn’t interested in the subject any more. I was looking at a ‘Wanted’ poster on the concrete wall, of Leila Khaled. I couldn’t decide if she was attractive because of herself, or because of what she did, shirt half–open, Uzi at the ready; but I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. What was it that gave us this fascination with left–wing (exclusively left–wing, mind—if that’s what they really were—no neo–fascist ever got a look–in on this melancholy roll–call) activists, women and even men, Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader—never a hero, actually, but Holger Meins, Jan–Carl Raspe, Astrid Proll—Patty Hearst wasn’t serious, she was a sort of John Travolta convert – – I smelt a terrible smell of burnt oil, and realised that Ali was warming up vegetable oil to use as a substitute for the proper gun lubrication, which he’d probably siphoned off to put in his jeep. I wouldn’t complain about this, we all did it, except that he re–used the oil in the bakery, and as a result the pretzels tasted dreadful…
So, after all, I was caught unprepared. My anti–hero/heroine surprised us thinking about food. The sun caught her gun in the doorway, as, brandishing her Levant war–cry, she pinned us down, now this way, now that, and with an ache I admired her panache even as I struggled to release my own pistol, good, I thought, yes… I wasn’t in time.
* * *
“Non! Non!! NON!!!” That’s the de Gaulle some of us know, l’homme de fer, and perhaps it’s true that at certain points in history it’s more important to be able to say ‘no’ with conviction than to accept. Even so, saying ‘no’ sets up a wall which must either be knocked down later, or side–tracked, or backed away from. If you say no, you should simultaneously be saying ‘yes’ to something else, to a wider freedom, not stopping half–way… And France was not free. Far from it. It depended on German repayments, a bitter pill to swallow. Raoul Belling, grandson of the inventor of the electric oven, and dreamer of druidic dominion, descended the slope behind Albi cathedral, to the gravelled walkway beside the river Tarn. An early morning mist was lifting from the river’s surface, as if burnt off by the great Apocalypse of the cathedral screen which hung hot in his mind, and he winced at the thought of how Albi’s huge red long–brick towers now stood for nothing, their Cathar legacy of gnostic communion reduced to the status of the poor frog he saw in an eddy, struggling to breathe, clearly poisoned by some pollution in the river. In his mind, the narrow Tarn broadened to become an image of the Loire, that vast river which is, like its territory, ever changing, reflecting the sky, yet ever massively the same, pouring on between its châteaux and vineyard flanks—France!
Tears started behind Raoul’s eyes as he slowed his pace, to take in his thoughts… “But France is not free!”, Raoul cried. As he walked on, kicking furiously at clumps of grass by the riverside, he came across a dried–up rivulet where he’d once played boules, in a time now lost in an indigo fog of memory. He gritted his teeth, growled into the thickets. “Our fine lion couldn’t overcome even a unicorn! Ah, how we need a Jacques Brel, who could pillory and glorify at once! ‘Ça sent la bière’, aussi le vin, it could be Bordeaux, Libourne on the shoulder of the Gironde” (looking out over Arcachon where Lili Boulanger went once hoping to restore her lost health)—“but Brel presides over all, the pantograph of pantomime –”.
Raoul remembered his visits to the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris, in the Cour Chaptal in the 9th arrondissement: so close to Ary Scheffer’s house where Georges Sand and Chopin called, and to the little theatre where Alfred Jarry first threw ‘Ubu Roi’ at an unsuspecting world—‘Merdre’, a fine opening line for 1896—and to the house where Nadia and Lili lived… Brel continues to speak for us, hadn’t he written
On a détruit la Bastille Et ça n’a rien arrangé On a détruit la Bastille Quand il fallait nous aimer
‘Aucun rêve jamais / Ne mérite une guerre…’ No, that wasn’t the way. Hadn’t he also sung, in Litanies pour un Retour,
Mon Coeur ma mie mon âme Mon ciel mon feu ma flamme Mon puits ma source mon val Mon miel mon baume mon Graal
That was it! ‘Le retour’, as of a King Arthur, waking up himself and his people—‘voilà que tu reviens’!
[‘Mais pourquoi moi, pourquoi maintenant, et.. où aller? (…) Mais qu’est–ce–que jamais j’ai fait d’autre—qu’arriver?’ – J.Brel, J’arrive]
“And this,” cried Raoul aloud, “is where we need our old woodland god, Lugh! Light, clarity! The striking of the midday sun into the forest glade!” Raoul, metaphorically booting out the inner infidel, aimed a kick at a broken pot in the grass verge, suddenly depressed again, knowing that light can’t exist without dark, and unable to see his way from one to another, yet sure this was a worthy quest…
He didn’t see, bound up as he was, the shard that he’d kicked into the undergrowth. It might have born an unnerving resemblance to the Grail he so ardently sought… and it did carry the relic of an inscription which strangely echoed—or prefigured, so time–worn did the fragment appear—the motto of the Revolution.
There’s no way of ascertaining the original text of this lost inscription, but a tentative reconstruction might go as follows:
GAUL LION LIBRE ? OUI, SI ÉGAL IN LOI, BRÛLEZ PAS DANS LE
FEU ILLÉGAL—IN BROTHERHOOD
AND SISTERHOOD, ÔC!
And a translation might be: ‘Is the Lion of Gaul free? Yes, if equal in law, burn not in the illegitimate fire [we can take this to be a reference to the savage Languedoc persecution of the Cathars, and similarly, given the prominent role taken by women in the ‘heretical’ movement, complete the final phrase with the necessary implication]—unissez–vous, frères et soeurs!’ and ending with the Occitane version of the initial northern French ‘oui’ (prudently moving these last unconventional words round to the unseen side of the vase). It may be surprising, but is certainly heartwarming, to find English mixed with French in this inscription from medieval southern France; testifying to a sense—an actuality!—of fellowship and elision of national (and regional, and linguistic—òc!) borders at a time when everything seemed against them.
No one, to my mind, has explained better than Rudolf Steiner the precise application of the famous triad which this Albi fragment adumbrates:
Liberté—in thought Egalité—in law Fraternité—in economics.
Try jumbling up the categories (as do almost all modern societies): they don’t work, you have chaos.
But there are those who prefer not to think about it, much less try to aim for it as a goal (or grail); even some chivalric orders dare not contemplate the true implications of their allegiance, preferring to dally in a shrubbery.
* * *
On the last day of the Furniture–Making Techniques course we gathered in the piano nobile of the Musée Cognacq–Jay. Rui, the Brazilian student, hadn’t quite memorised the historical module, but it didn’t matter. “Not marquetry, but tapestry,” I reminded him. “Engraving’s over there: look how the artist has directed the chisel point, to bring out the overriding floral motif.” “Monsieur –” broke in a French student. “Do you think the Parthenon marbles have the right to stay in England? Aren’t the legal grounds a bit shaky?” “Can’t you let that hoary subject lie?” retorted Ron, a blunt English student. “Oh, Ron, are you so easily taken in?” “When anyone’s listening. I don’t believe in a free–for–all, unlike the so–called socialist government, if that’s what you mean. Would you like an exotic fruit, by the way?” “That Blair’s unctuousness is spread all over the Highlands,” interposed a Scotsman. “Devolution’s only of use to the well–off, people at home in smart salons, like him, the slim – ” “Yuk. You make him sound like a media–courting ballet–dancer.” Oh, imagine the slight scent of his overheated body in the green-room…
* [alchemicalpause] *
One of my less likely career moves was to take up an appointment as manager of the UNESCO football team in Lagos, West Africa. I remember all too well the only match for which I was (nominally) responsible. Eli, in goal, was totally pissed, and when by mistake the Nigerians knocked the ball towards him he reacted like streaked lightning and missed it. Opinions on the touchline were varied, if strongly held. “He’s been at the samples in the laboratory,” reckoned Nigel, a scientist of Latin American descent. “Rubbish,” I snorted. “This is just too many beers. Or spirits.” “Well, look…” Nigel tried to insist. “Rubbish!” I cried again. Didn’t he understand that individual drunkenness was infinitely preferable to the suspicion of misuse of official chemical supplies? But as I remonstrated, I was suddenly flooded by the recollection of another summer’s day, in my college rooms in Oxford, arriving back from a lecture in the Classics Faculty, where my view of the beautiful Greek sculpture of Niobe had been interrupted only by the even more beautiful profile of the girl I hadn’t yet dared to speak to, but surely, after I’d poured myself this drink, I would – I would – “You’re drinking in your hidden memory,” Raul interrupted my bittersweet reminiscence, his sallow face unsullied by irony. He wasn’t well, but he generally made nothing personal of it, in his unfluent Belgian English, as if it were merely a sequence of unpleasant things which might be happening to a mutual acquaintance. “You liked to have been Eric Gill, artist lover of fifty, Niobe, fifty times loved?” How did he know? But he didn’t see Niobe like I did, full of animal desirability and yet, somehow, on my social level. “My kidney’s got a chronic abscess, I had to call in sick with Legionnaire’s Disease, my scarlet fever’s suppurating, I’m malade, I’ve a great boil,” continued Raul. He looked so innocently surprised by all this! And then, suddenly, he burst out in horrified misery, “I am not well, I have a sickness, o curse! And I can’t make out any ship that might carry me home…”
* * *
This year’s Organists’ Outing was to Lille, in northern France. None of us knew much about it, except that it was a big, dull city. But as our interest was simply in the instrument in St M—Church, this hardly worried us.
For everybody else, that’s how it remained, and perhaps remains to this day. But at the reception when we arrived—verbena tea, almond biscuits—I found myself next to a dark French girl with a ringlet of hair hanging over her ear, which fascinated me. As we listened to the welcoming speeches, she removed a hair–pin and shook her curls free. She put the kirby–grip on the table next to her name–card, which had a Lille address on it. The clip was of some matt alloy, and seemed to be shaped like a nymph, or siren, whose fingers, held above her head, merged back into the metallic matrix. Without understanding why I was doing it, and as she was looking in another direction, I took the card and the brooch from the table and put them in my pocket. Perhaps to prevent her having the opportunity to notice this, I asked her in a rush, when she next looked round, if she was going to the dinner after that evening’s recital. She replied “Je préfère être seule”. Soon after, she left, without another word.
There was still an hour and a half to go until the recital. We would only meet the organist afterwards, so the others were setting out to discover a few Lille cafés. I took out the card from my pocket, and read the address. In Lille things work well, except the motions of the heart, and I was able soon to be walking down the street where she, perhaps, lived. (Though even amongst my colleagues, carefully ensconced in the centre, all did not necessarily go smoothly: one member of the group, directed aurally to the restaurant ‘Lutterbach’, spent an age trying to find ‘Le Tabac’.)
Heading, as I felt, away from civilisation, after many minutes I found myself in front of a stone porch, on each side entwined with carvings of bay trees. Above it I took in moulded forms of male and female figures playing, disputing, nymphs with locks cascading over their ears and gods priapically rampant, yet none quite touching another, always reaching… and as the evening sun hit the horizon and blurred my sight, a warm heavy summer rain started to fall, which began stealthily to wash away the details of the carvings in their soft sandstone, starting with the protuberances and ending with the eyes…
I looked at my watch and realised that I was far too late to attend the recital, where perhaps she was. I returned to the city centre, and took the night train back home. I would have put all this behind me, as a dream, but have not been able to forget that at one moment, as (already unmanned, stammering, in my mind) I was looking at her name–card ‘Laure…’, her wrist inadvertently brushed mine; and my skin still felt as if scalded.
* * *
The setting is northern Africa—desert wilderness mingled with the appurtenances of multinational oil extraction. It’s night.
A lone cicada sounds across the landing strip (I think with nostalgia of Josquin). A wild ass trots across the floodlit patch in front of the terminal. I’ve come to meet Bill, who’s taken refuge in the only cool place, the airline lounge.
Bill tells us there’s a delivery of gold ingots, asks where the Turin industrialist is. I reply he’s in Catalonia, just where Ramon Llull worked—by a curious coincidence, on the transmutation of base elements into gold.
Bill, quipping about tauromachy but amused by the Lull connection, wants to keep an eye on all this, but we agree to leave him out of the loop. A great moon, blue at first, begins to rise over the airfield. A Copacabana moon, which somehow doesn’t convince… I’m thinking hard as I go through the usual astrological banter with Gillian Rouble, perhaps not her real name, as she seems to be connected with Russian oil oligarchs. Some of her pithier expressions make me wonder why I ever fancied her (Eulali’s quite fun), but she turns the conversation round till I hardly know who I am (a French man of letters?) and am persuaded to set up the little barbeque we have, and prepare some fish fillets. However I’ve failed again—hoping for praise, I’ve brought out as requested my special Indonesian garlic sauce, but it’s gone off, and everyone declares it inedible. Haven’t I any game instead? Non. The teasing goes on.
Desolate, I look out over the runway, where the moon is looming more and more. And in its blue light, I see something strange on the oil–drilling tower: protective suits, an inflatable mattress—I need to change the labelling urgently, and sprint across the field.
I’ve been spotted, alas, by Niall and Ollie, whose job it was, but who always exaggerate grossly when anything untoward happens. As I try to cover up whatever unnatural coupling is going on, we swap globe–trotting repartee, in a game I think I’m losing, but at least I may have avoided official disgrace. We’d get off more lightly in France… I blame the moon.
* * *
Elsewhere in Nubia… discussions about the coming arts festival. “Let’s think about the residential course,” I smiled round at the committee. “How about historical fiddle techniques in Scandinavia? And then the main programme: for our desert climate, something classical—Debussy, Beethoven, bourgeois excellence, piano recitals under the stars. We won’t have Venetian renaissance, that’s being done in the Scottish Isles.” “But we could have French baroque?” “How about Expressionism?” “I think they’d like stylish musicals mixing Puccini and Broadway, a medley of Italian opera (we could sell pizza in the interval), singers who can let out to their hearts’ content…” “White Christmas?” “… and a couple of turns by our own stars –” I round up, “that means you, Elli, and Raoul, and to crown it the majestic Organosova.” It’s a fine line–up, for a first season, but I’m just thinking of my lost girl, with whom I’d chimed as if for the first time on the cruise–ship over from Italy. She was no Lucretia, but…
The moon sailed higher. I considered the condenser rules in our home–brew store, and had a better idea. There was another girl, after all, and Brian to sort out the paperwork, and I’d a supply of—glory be!—champagne.
* * *
Notes on a meeting between the German writer [Heinrich] Böll and the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria [unless it is the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria, but the context seems to favour the former].
Böll: “Will gin be alright?” Luria: “Just give me caviar.” Yes, and no doubt pancakes, and several beers, that would be like him. “Have you seen any good films lately? And by the way, I hope Liliana’s pregnancy’s going well.” “Gullshit is deposited most selectively.” “Wow,” Louis, his secretary, exclaims. “Lewis Carroll, yeah?” “You ass,” Luria groans, “it was meant to be Dylan Thomas, though admittedly not very close.” And he tries to settle his face into a Martian scowl. Böll again: “Ach, I’ve seen that look on a fresco in Milan!” “Luini’s too cheerful—I was thinking of an Italian with a crooked elbow.” Böll: “There’s an idea—we could play Shakespeare consequences! Ulli,” (that’s me, the interpreter), “I’ll start.
‘Blue, ill, Goneril –’ ”, “ ‘Regan, seethe’ ”, I read. Luria: “ ‘Stewed tripe for me…’ ” “That’s not Shakespeare!”
* * *
The world of the dead, in ancient Egypt, lay on the west side of the Nile: one moved towards the setting sun. And one moved by boat, of course, a boat carved or constructed out of wood. In other times, and places, rites might be associated with bulls and bull games (Minoan Crete), Pythian oracular mysteries (Delphi), or—oh! Hebrew, Mithraic or Christian angels. In this case, not the annunciating Gabriel, as we’re talking of a death. There are other forces, Loki, Baal, best to keep out of their way. Look, look… another mercurial spirit, Ariel, whom we think beneficent though he can have a demonic aspect—and now Gabriel’s counterpart, the summer archangel Uriel, who presides over Lili’s illness, plucking at her insides like the eagle at Prometheus’ liver.
But Crohn’s seems like a moon illness, a poor person spreadeagled on the crux of their own anatomy. Acrid as the bile given to the hung Christ (butChrist stopped at Eboli…). One can understand though why Lili Boulanger tried to turn to the sun in Arcachon (I did the same myself, seventy years later, hoping to salvage a disappearing love). However there was no cure even if you could pay for it, in any currency.
I can imagine Lili, in extremis, looking to find anywhere away, however simple, however cheap, by herself, knowing her account had passed into the red; but the trouble remained inside.
Lili Boulanger was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre. I have visited her grave, where she was joined by her elder sister Nadia over sixty years later, and I didn’t feel her presence there. I was glad, as that meant she is now everywhere.
Nicolas Robertson, London – Lisbon 1999–2021, with acknowledgements to Charles Pott, Tom Phillips, Rachel Wheatley, inter al.
For all their massive tuttis, the textures of Mahler’s symphonies often have the feel of chamber music. Not only do chamber arrangements afford more opportunities for performance in times of austerity, but once one adjusts they bring their own rewards (for a useful post on the wider background in WAM, see here). The loss in scale is a gain in intimacy.
Left to right: Arnold Schoenberg, Otto Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen, Anton Webern, Erwin Stein, 1924.
The Ensemble Mini (site and YouTube channel) has recently recorded the 9th and 10th symphonies. Here’s a trailer for their recording of Klaus Simon’s arrangement of the 9th (with seventeen performers!!!):
Like many classic “lollipops” (such as the “Air on the G string“), Debussy’s Clair de lune (1905, from the Suite bergamesque) is such an ubiquitous media soundbite that I’ve always tended to switch off after the first phrase—like meeting a beautiful person with the word “CLICHÉ” scrawled in lipstick on their forehead. Nor is it helped by the sentimental renditions of glossy superstars. But at long last, overcoming my reluctance, I am properly immersing myself in its magic.
Votre âme est un paysage choisi Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune.
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau, Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
Here’s the first of Debussy’s two vocal settings, from 1882:
As to the piano piece (composed with the sonority of his Bechstein upright in mind), we have a precious 1913 piano roll. Debussy did make rolls of his Children’s corner suite (see here); this one too is widely attributed to him on YouTube and elsewhere, but appears to be by Suzanne Godenne (see here, leading us to the detailed scholarship of Roy Howat). Anyway, I love the tempo (Andante!), and the rubato. While the reliability of piano rolls as sources has been much discussed, perhaps this gives an impression of the performance style of the day:
And typically, I’m a great fan of Hélène Grimaud’s rendition (on her 2018 Memory album)—again with plentiful rubato:
Some may say that Debussy already builds rubato into the notation, subverting the 9/8 metre with tuplets and syncopation, thus making further rhythmic latitude superfluous, even harmful, except in the passage where he actually specifies rubato (from 0.54 in the 1913 recording, bar 15); but I’m all for these more fluid interpretations.
The piece also suits the harp, such as this (very slow!) version:
For Good Friday, as a reminder to listen to the Bach Passions, two, um, trailers—
Here’s the chorale Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück that follows the anguished O Schmerz! to end Part One of the John Passion:
Petrus, der nicht denkt zurück, Seinen Gott verneinet Der doch auf ein’ ernsten Blick Bitterlichen weinet. Jesu, blicke mich auch an, Wenn ich nicht will büßen Wenn ich Böses hab getan, Rühre mein Gewissen!
And also from the John Passion, the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze:
Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears Dem Höchsten zu Ehren! to honour the Almighty! Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not: Tell the world and heaven your distress: Dein Jesus ist tot! your Jesus is dead!
I trust that will lead you to these complete versions, from the Proms:
In my page on Bach—and Daoist ritual, I cited John Eliot Gardiner’s brilliant Music in the castle of heaven. For Easter Week, I’ve been re-reading Chapter 9, “Cycles and seasons”. At least in an increasingly secularised north Europe, our awareness of the rich annual programme has been severely diluted—but it does remind me of the continuing calendrical rituals of Chinese temple fairs.
Bach’s church cantatas were performed not for “concerts” but as part of religious services. As in Chinese ritual, elements within them could be recycled. However, whereas minimal change—both conscious and unconscious—was doubtless a feature of the Daoist soundscape (as in much of the world), Bach’s congregation grew used to hearing new music every week.
Gardiner places the Passions within the cycle of cantatas (note also the vast database on bachcantatas.com).
On the face of it, there is little reason to bother about Bach’s cantatas today. Never intended to be performed or listened to other than as part of a lengthy church service, they were composed (and rehearsed) each week at great speed to act as a foretaste of the Sunday sermon. *
Whereas Charles Rosen disputed the “fashionable” placing of the cantatas as Bach’s principle achievement, seeking to return to the conception of the keyboard works as central to his oeuvre, Gardiner cites John Butt (see Passion at the Proms, and Playing with history):
Cyclic time is essential to a liturgical, ritualistic approach to religion, in which important events and aspects of dogma are celebrated within a yearly cycle.
Bach devoted himself to such cycles, first at Weimar (with twenty-two extant church cantatas) and then in Leipzig, notably in his first few years there from 1723. Even in the “closed” seasons of Advent and Lent, when no figural music was allowed in church, he was busy preparing new works.
Following his cantatas in their seasonal context also allows us to notice how Bach, like Janâček two centuries later, often brings to the surface pre-Christian rituals and forgotten connections that reflect the turning of the agricultural year—the certainty of the land, its rhythms and rituals, the unerring pace of its calendar and the vagaries of rural weather. Saxony in the 18th century was still a predominantly agrarian society in which these seasonal events and happenings were closely linked to the concerns of religion—reminding us how, in today’s predominantly urban society, many of us tend to lose contact with the rhythms and patterns of the farming calendar and even with perceptions of the basic, cyclical round of life and death which feature prominently in so many of Bach’s cantatas. […] For Bach to remind his urban audience of Leipzig burghers of the patterns of seed-time and harvesting existing just beyond their city walls was nothing unusual, and the rhythms and rituals of the agrarian year frequently seep through into his music, giving it topicality and currency as well as a layer of simple rusticity.
Among their doctrinal messages, the cantatas allude to sowing, corn-flattening summer storms, bird damage, crop-failure. Rediscovering this seasonal basis on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000
was markedly different from the conventional practices of music-making we were used to in concert halls, which, however persuasive, cannot help but carry resonances foreign to the intrinsic purpose of the music.
Through his hectic first Leipzig cycle, Bach’s self-imposed task was to keep pace with the weekly demand:
There was the copying out of parts and guiding his (as yet) untried group of young musicians in how to negotiate the hazards of his startling and challenging music with a bare minimum of rehearsal. […] Come the day, there was first a long, cold wait in an unheated church, then a single shot at a daunting target. Then, without a backward glance, on to the next, maintaining a relentless rhythm. […]
One marvels at how he and his performers could have met these challenges. We shall of course never know how well they acquitted themselves and just how well the music was performed under such pressure.
As Gardiner notes,
The underlying theology is at times unappetising [to us today, that is—SJ]—mankind portrayed as wallowing in degradation and sinfulness, the world a hospital peopled by sick souls whose sins fester like suppurating boils and yellow excrement.
Here I can only sample Gardiner’s vivid commentaries on individual cantatas. In BWV 25, Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, the dark text (such as “The whole world is but a hospital”; Adam’s Fall “has defiled us all and infected us with leprous sin”) is somehow healed by Bach’s setting:
As autumn passes into winter the themes of the week become steadily grimmer as the faithful are urged to reject the world, its lures and snares, and to focus on eventual union with God—or risk the horror of permanent exclusion.
After Advent the mood is lightened by the glorious explosion of festive music for the Christmas season (for the Christmas oratorio, see under Weimar here). Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121), for the Feast of St Stephen, is “one of the oldest-feeling of all Bach’s cantatas”, adding cornett and trombones to the orchestration.
Replacing the portrayals of dancing seraphim are images of those angular, earnest faces that 15th-century Flemish painters use to depict the shepherds gazing into the manger-stall. […] Bach’s design for this cantata mirrors the change from darkness to light and shows how the moment when Christians celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world coincides with the turning of the sun at the winter solstice.
For a change, here’s Ton Koopman directing:
But there was no respite: Bach composed six new cantatas for the period between Epiphany to the beginning of Lent—including the operatic Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? (BWV 81), with Jesus calming the storm at sea. Here’s Koopman again:
Always pushing the boundaries of the Leipzig councilmen’s warnings about excessive theatricality, such music leads to Holy Week and Bach’s Passions.
Bach opened his second Leipzig cantata cycle on 11th June 1724 with another setting of O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20), again evocatively described by Gardiner. Time for some Sigiswald Kuijken:
The opening chorus of Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott(BWV 101, for the tenth Sunday after Trinity) features a trio of oboes, the voices doubled by archaic cornetto and trombones, and dissonances for the “grave punishment and great distress” of the hymn text. In the “rage” aria for bass the oboes become “a kind of latter-day [sic] saxophone trio”; and the pairing of flute and oboe da caccia that complements the soprano and alto duet foretells Ausliebe in the Matthew Passion. Here’s Nikolaus Harnoncourt:
Gardiner contrasts Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65) and Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen(BWV 123), written for Epiphany in successive years. The first is “oriental and pageant-like”; getting a bit carried away, he describes
high horns to convey majesty and antiquity, recorders to represent the high pitches traditionally associated with oriental music, and still more, oboes da caccia so redolent—to the modern ear—of the Macedonian zurla, the salmai of Hindustan and the nadaswaram from Tamil Nadu. […] With their haunting sonority these “hunting oboes” seem to belong the world of Marco Polo—of caravans traversing the Silk Route—and it remains something of a mystery how a specialist wind-instrument-maker, Herr Johann Eichentopf of Leipzig, could have invented this magnificent modern tenor oboe with its curved tube and flared brass bell around 1722 unless he had heard one of those oriental prototypes played by visitors to one of Leipzig’s trade fairs.
Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen “opens with a graceful chorus in 9/8, a little reminiscent of an Elizabethan dance”. But as Gardiner reminds us, the central arias are just as captivating as the opening choruses:
Mouldering away somewhere in the attics of [Leipzig] citizens there could still be letters holding what we so sorely lack—direct testimony to the varied responses by members of Bach’s listening public to the music he put in front of them.
* A cantata might even be punctuated by the sermon—bear this in mind when you find your listening on YouTube cruelly disrupted by a smarmy ad for funeral care, a latter-day vision of the torments of hell. On the other hand, the Leipzig congregegation couldn’t click on “Skip sermon”, so Thanks Be to God.