Friday, 19 December 2008

Our books of the year


2008 has been an unforgettable year for new music books from the Boydell Press and the University of Rochester Press. To close this year’s posts on From Beyond the Stave we’d like to remind you of some of them and also some of the authors’ posts. You can win a free copy of one of these magnificent titles by answering a blog-related question (see below).

As the champagne corks pop around the world for his 100th birthday, we are pleased to publish Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C Shreffler, in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation. "Lavishly illustrated, handsomely documented and superbly annotated," as the Financial Times pointed out, it is "for committed Carterites, the only acceptable Christmas present." The composer's own Collected Essays are also available again in paperback. One of the great interpreters of Carter's works for piano is Charles Rosen, whose work as a pianist and man of letters is the focus of a new collection of essays, Variations on the Canon, edited by Robert Curry, David Gable and Robert L Marshall.

Anyone with a serious interest in British music will want the fourth volume of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten covering the years 1952-7, now published by the Boydell Press in association with the Britten-Pears Foundation. The three editors, led this time by Philip Reed, have produced another highly acclaimed volume: "Magnificent," said the Spectator, "the annotation continues to be quite superb - meticulous, imaginative, and illuminating". Similarly praised was Christopher Grogan's Imogen Holst: A Life in Music ("Magnificent" the Gramophone, "Excellent" TLS), published in 2007 but an excellent companion volume to the Britten Letters.

"I think Stravinsky was right to point to Berners as being one of the best English composers of the century. He didn't produce a lot of work but what he did produce was remarkable," is composer Gavin Bryars' view of the eccentric earl. Peter Dickinson's entertaining and illuminating collection of interviews with people who knew Lord Berners sheds new light on his life as a composer, painter and writer. Just published is Adrian Wright's biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, the first full biography of a composer best known for his film music. Another neglected British composer is the subject of an acclaimed study by Leo Black, Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist. "Stylishly written and invitingly presented," said the Musical Times. Equally stylish is Pamela Blevins' double life of Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty. With the publication of this compelling book these two important figures in twentieth century British cultural life are finally receiving the attention they deserve.

Opera lovers will want to read Wagner and Venice, an engagingly written study by John W Barker, which looks at what Venice meant to the composer and how it, in turn, viewed him. Wagnerian travellers will also be interested in Richard Wagner's Zurich by Chris Walton which was published to great acclaim in 2007. However if Mozart is more to your taste, Ian Woodfield's study of Mozart's Così fan tutte will offer unique insights into the compositional history of this great work. Opera in Britain in the early part of the twentieth century owes a great deal to Thomas Beecham, who is the subject of a recent and highly-praised biography by John Lucas. "Brilliant," said the Gramophone; "engaging and erudite," offered Opera magazine; "thorough, exhaustive and often highly amusing," added Classical Music.

Early music enthusiasts and scholars will want to read Lorenzo Candelaria's Rosary Cantoral, a study of the rare and beautifully decorated Latin plainchant manuscript produced in Spain around 1500. It is strange to think that in the 1800s "Spem in alium" was not greatly admired, a fact we learn in Suzanne Cole's Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England which comes highly recommended by Peter Phillips in the latest issue of the Musical Times. Susan Boynton and Eric Rice are the editors of a fascinating collection on Young Choristers 650-1700, the first full-length consideration of the role played by young singers over this extended period.

If the music of the 19th and 20th centuries is more to your taste, you'll enjoy Hugh Macdonald's collection of essays, Beethoven's Century, which range widely, mirroring the author's breadth and depth of interests. One area covered is French music, which is also the subject of a book edited by Barbara Kelly, French Music, Culture, and National Identity 1870-1939 which received four stars in a recent issue of BBC Music magazine. Hugh Macdonald is also one of the contributors to Peter Bloom's Berlioz : Scenes from the Life and Work. "Readers," Philip Borg-Wheeler wrote in Classical Music, "will derive great pleasure from this admirably produced collection." Beyond The Art of Finger Dexterity is the title of David Gramit's collection of essays on the multi-faceted Carl Czerny, which was praised by the Musical Times for its "usefulness, originality, [and] interest" as well as being "a good read."

These last titles were published in the Eastman Studies in Music series from the University of Rochester Press, who this year also published books on analyzing atonal music, music and mathematics (the Eastman Series' 50th title), musical phrasing in the eighteenth century and music of the Moravian church. Perhaps our most unusual book was a much-needed translation of Japanese composer Minoru Miki's classic Composing for Japanese Instruments which included two CDs.

To win one of the above simply consider the following question, the answer to which may be found in a previous posting on this blog: which Wagner “treasure” did Chris Walton discover after lunch with the daughter of a Swiss composer? If you know the answer, send it by e-mail to Michael Richards on mrichards[at]boydell[dot]co[dot]uk before January 15th 2009. I’ll contact the winner about which book you’d like and where to send it.

From Beyond the Stave will be back in early January. Until then may we wish you a very happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year from all at Boydell & Brewer and the University of Rochester Press.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Happy Birthday, Elliott Carter!


To celebrate Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday, we have published – in association with the Paul Sacher Foundation - Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait by Felix Meyer and Anne C. Shreffler. Here Professor Shreffler relates how the book took shape:

No one who has ever visited the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel will ever forget the stunning view of the Rhine from the reading room windows. Nestled away in a corner of one of Basel's most picturesque town squares, across from the 900-year old cathedral, the building houses not medieval manuscripts, as the surroundings suggest, but rather the largest private collection of documents relating to 20th and 21st-century music in the world: Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, and Boulez are only a few of the more than 100 collections.

I remember very well how one day in 1988, my attention was diverted from that seriously distracting view of the river and the Webern manuscripts I was studying by the sight of the enormous table in the adjoining room covered with boxes. "That's Elliott Carter," Felix Meyer, then a curator and now Director of the Paul Sacher Foundation, explained. Since then material has continued to flow from New York City to Basel, as works are completed and closets cleaned out. While there is still Carter material in the Library of Congress and other libraries, the bulk of his music manuscripts and correspondence is in the Paul Sacher Foundation, where in the twenty years since the collection arrived it has been carefully catalogued and preserved in the Foundation's vast, climate controlled, three-story deep underground safe.

The decision to publish some of this material with extensive commentary in honor of the composer's centennial was an easy one. We both love Carter's music and relished the chance to steep ourselves in it. The hard part was choosing from roughly 10,000 letters, thousands of pages of sketches, and dozens of lecture texts, articles and photographs in the archives, almost all of it previously unpublished. It was also difficult to select which works we wanted to include, especially since Carter has become quite prolific in his later years (his works list is at 128 and counting…). The logistics of a transatlantic collaboration between Boston and Basel were easily overcome with the help of email, phone calls, and a few international flights. We ultimately decided to present a portrait of the composer within the musical life of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, and hope in particular to have chosen texts that illuminate his situation as an American composer in the world.

To accompany Carter throughout his almost century-long existence is to experience vicariously the ups and downs of American music in the twentieth century. We trace his tentative beginnings in the 1920s and '30s, his steady rise to fame, his efforts to establish institutions of new music in the US, and his artistic friendships with some of the leading musicians of the last hundred years. Carter generously shared his memories and his time during our visits to his Greenwich Village apartment; the weeklong Carter festival at Tanglewood this past summer brought us all together again.

Carter, hale, hearty, and as productive as ever, will turn 100 on December 11. When Felix and I started working on this book, our ages taken together added up to that number exactly. Now, about a year and a half later – relieved that we will in fact meet this very hard deadline! – we have surpassed him with a collective age of 102, and look forward to celebrating his 101st, 102nd and many subsequent birthdays after that - but with glasses of champagne, not new books.

Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents is available now from all good booksellers. In the Financial Times, Andrew Clark, has already called it “lavishly illustrated, handsomely documented and superbly annotated” and “for committed Carterites, the only acceptable Christmas present”. Congratulations, Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler, and congratulations too, Elliott Carter.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Lion roars for Wagner


In a week when the flood waters threatened Venice more dramatically than at any time during the past two decades, here is John W Barker, author of Wagner and Venice, on the composer's relationship to that great city:

The Lion of St. Mark, eternal symbol of Venice, has witnessed a lot over the centuries, good and bad, and even since the fall of the Serene Republic in 1797. All the tourists might not think so, but the Lion has had some fun even since then. He has actually taken a shine to some of the many foreigners who visit. One in particular, a funny chap named Richard Wagner.

Short and stubby, with an ego at least double-sized. And opinionated! But, you know, a genius, too. A great composer, and lots more. The Lion first got to know some of Wagner's music when the Municipal Band played a few arrangements. Then the Lion heard some of Wagner's full operas. The Lion loves opera -
after all, his city of Venice almost invented it as a form of public entertainment in the sixteenth century, and built the first permanent theaters for it.

Sure, the Lion didn't like Wagner himself too much at first. The guy came to Venice the first time in 1858 and spent some months there. Gloomy fellow, keeping to himself, not caring that the Lion had an Austrian muzzle at the time. But during that stay, Wagner composed the middle act of what the Lion was informed was one of the greatest of all operas. Though German, of course. Wagner came back for five more visits, eventually bringing with him his new wife, Cosima - now there was one tough lady! - and their children. At first they were just passing through, but the Lion was pleased to see that Wagner quickly came to love the Lagoon City. Cosima dragged her husband to art galleries, and they walked and gondola-ed about, while Wagner spouted his endless pontifications. Venice really got to Wagner, the Lion noticed. And Wagner even rented the facilities of the glorious Fenice Theater and Music Conservatory to conduct his major student work, one of those Germanic symphonies.

But then, on that last visit, Wagner suddenly died, in that grand old Palazzo Vendramin where he and his family were lodging. The Lion by then had recognized what a truly famous and important chap this Wagner was, and wanted to keep his body in Venice, or at least make a big splashy send-off to his remains. Well, the composer's corpse was quietly taken back to Germany for burial, but soon the Lion realized that Wagner had nevertheless left something of himself and his art to Venice. Just two months after the composer died, a visiting German company gave a fully staged production of that cycle of four operas, The Ring of the Niebelungen, at the Lion's beloved Fenice - honoring the theater and the city with the first such show of it anywhere in Italy. OK, in German, but what a blast! The Lion was now a true Wagnerian convert. And what fun to watch the circus as all the critics decided what Wagner's music meant for Italian music and how it affected Italian opera-lovers!

It didn’t stop there. That Municipal Band really took up the composer's cause in the city. Its leader, that brave little Sicilian with the Neapolitan name, Calascione, who had conducted for Wagner and had won his respect, became a real booster - giving concerts right under the Lion's twitching nose in the Piazza San Marco. Pretty soon, there was an annual commemoration on the day of Wagner's death. Those went on for decades, and that famous American lady in Paris, the Princesse de Polignac, even chipped in some cash to support those events. But the Lion wanted still more. Under his inspiration, some of the foreign residents in the city arranged to have a fine bust of Wagner set up in the Public Gardens. The Lion had to allow good Italians to set up an adjacent bust of Verdi, the following year, to satisfy national honor. So the Lion found in that daring egotist, Gabriele D'Annunzio, and some of his foreign friends, just the ones to create and set up a memorial plaque on the Canal wall of the Palazzo Vendramin, as a final riposte. Other markers, too. A plaque at the Lavena Café where Wagner liked to take his kids for sweets. And a marker outside the street entrance to the Vendramin. No other foreigner has acquired as many monuments and markers in Venice as has Wagner.

Of course, there were slights along the way. That silly strutter, Mussolini, and that evil dictator, Hitler, first met in Venice, and they never bothered to pay the slightest attention to the Wagner associations of Venice and the Vendramin. By now, however, the Lion has won over Venetians and Italians to appreciate Wagner's music. There is even a Wagner Association in the city, and although the Vendramin is now a part-year gambling casino, that Association has turned the room were Wagner died into a museum.

Yes, the Lion honors many other composers, like Gabrieli and Monteverdi and Vivaldi. But Wagner is special. Venice has stolen some of him from the Germans and made him a naturalized Venetian.

The Lion is still there, proud and undaunted, an unashamed Wagnerite. And Wagner himself is still there, too, a permanent part of Venice's mystique.

John W Barker's superbly evocative Wagner and Venice is available now from all good booksellers.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Richard Hickox 1948-2008


As a publisher with a long-standing interest in books on British music, we would like to join those who have expressed their shock and sadness at the sudden death of Richard Hickox. Coming so soon after Vernon Handley, music is robbed of two great conductors who weren’t afraid to stray from the well-worn path. On his Guardian blog, Tom Service writes “[His death is] a huge blow for those British composers - Rubbra, Dyson, Alwyn, Bliss - who Hickox championed but who other conductors rarely go near.”

He recorded over 300 CDs – a remarkable work rate and an indication of his passion for the repertoire – many of them for Chandos. “His long-standing relationship with the Chandos label resulted in a formidable discographical output centred on British music of the last hundred years or so: Elgar, Parry, Stanford and their many successors,” wrote Barry Millington, also in the Guardian. “Among the orchestral byways explored were William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Lennox Berkeley, Frank Bridge and Edmund Rubbra, while neglected items such as George Dyson's Canterbury Pilgrims joined classics by Tippett, Walton and others from the choral repertoire.” He was also an acclaimed interpreter of Britten’s operas and the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

With typical eloquence, On an Overgrowth Path, writes: “He championed music that has been quite scandalously ignored by higher-profile conductors, despite its obvious merit. We have lost a truly great musical figure. Richard Hickox was a wonderful musician. But he was also prepared to devote much of his career to going where others fear to tread. That is something very rare among top conductors today. Nothing can offset the feeling of loss. But at least Richard's passion will live on in his wonderful recorded legacy.”

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Music Scholars come to Music City

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - At 3am on November 7th, a woman in Nashville, having learned that her husband was in Fuel Bar and Nightclub with another woman, came by and called him out into the parking lot, writes Ralph Locke. A quarrel erupted, she cut him in the back with a broken bottle, and he took out a gun and fired a warning shot in the air. I heard about the incident the next morning on the local TV news, and could not help but thinking that it sounded like a country-and-western song.

I was one of some two thousand musicologists and music theorists who were in Nashville that week, attending the joint annual meetings of the American Musicological Society and the Society for Music Theory. Our hotel was a short walk from Second Street, and many of us walked by Fuel at one point or another. After I heard the news about the violent episode, I asked around but was relieved not to find anybody who had been within shooting distance of Fuel (or, I really mean, being-shot distance) during the wee hours of the 7th.

Aside from newsworthy events of that sort, Nashville - the epicenter of the country-music industry, featuring dozens of high-level, if sometimes too well-fueled, clubs and bars at which an amazing array of hopeful performers strut their stuff - proved an inspired choice. We academics like to flatter ourselves as open-minded, and there are few things that can force open a music scholar’s mind with more drastic efficacy than encountering music of a sort that he or she normally can barely tolerate. True, there were some country-music aficionados among us - I know one, at least - but I imagine I was more typical.

Walking by what looked like a nineteenth-century red-brick church (because that’s what it originally was), and never having heard of this building - the Ryman Auditorium - I was surprised to hear loud chords and joyous applause coming from inside. The guard at the door gave me a ticket that I suppose had been given to her by somebody leaving early. The ticket listed the main performer as Ronnie Milsap, a name that sounded faintly familiar to me, though I wasn’t sure whether it belonged to a woman or a man.

I quickly discovered that Milsap is one of the most beloved male country-music artists and the first country superstar to have been born blind. (He has had, across his decades-long career, more number-one songs on the country chart than any performer except George Strait and Conway Twitty.) We all sat in wooden pews, and people were bringing food and drink from the concessions in the lobby into the hall, as if this were a big outdoor festival. The audience loved Milsap’s banter about his career, and they welcomed as old favorites such love-forever-lost songs as “That Girl Who Waits on Tables Used to Wait for Me at Home.”

Quite a contrast to the sessions at the scholarly conference two blocks up the hill: no shouts of love and appreciation from the floor, for one thing! To be fair, though, many of the attendees noted that there was less contentiousness during this year’s sessions than has sometimes occurred in the past. Perhaps the two societies’ program committees chose particularly well: the papers that I attended were on a very high level. But the people in the audience can take some credit, too. The discussion and debate - often plentiful - was generally carried out in a remarkably constructive spirit. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of methodological pluralism: scholars may be beginning to accept that no one approach or interpretive angle necessarily invalidates another.

A particular excitement at any scholarly meeting surrounds the exhibit of new books. The tables for the Boydell and Brewer/University of Rochester Press family of firms received many visitors and many book orders. I edit URP’s Eastman Studies in Music series, so I looked on with particular pleasure - while trying to be inconspicuous! - as visitors to the booth discovered such recent titles as Beethoven’s Century, by Hugh Macdonald, and Variations on the Canon, a book of new essays created in tribute to the great pianist and critic Charles Rosen. (I kept hearing remarks along the lines of “Look at these names: Treitler, Lockwood, Kerman, even Rosen himself…!”) The fact that the many important books published by Toccata Press are now distributed by Boydell further enriched the wares on display.

But the biggest “wows” were heard as people opened the covers of Boydell’s richly illustrated Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents. Carter turns 100 on 11 December 2008 and continues to compose actively. A wealth of previously unpublished documents, scores, letters and photographs in the archives of the Paul Sacher Foundation (in Basel, Switzerland) enabled the authors - Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler - to include 90 illustrations of this material, 60 of them in color. The documents are connected by a flowing and thoughtful text: this is one picture book that can be read with pleasure and profit from beginning to end. Sometimes, at the book table, it seemed that people who picked up this inviting book could barely stop themselves from reading on and on.

And maybe that is the scholar’s equivalent of the whoops, cheers, and applause heard at country-music concerts!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Surprising Hans Keller


Having recently published Adrian Wright’s superb biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, we thought it might be interesting to see what Hans Keller had to say about his film music. In Film Music and Beyond, published last year by Plumbago, Keller addresses the subject of surprise and speech rhythm in The Ship that Died of Shame:

Measured against its context, the loudest shock we know is probably the one in Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony. But it does not introduce any immediate news; on the contrary, the fortissimo chord and drum tap seem but a jocular variation on the perfect cadence of the period’s first statement. “That will make the ladies jump,” was the composer’s comment.

Keller focuses on the element of surprise in the second half of Alwyn’s music for Ship, a score he found dull until a point where Richard Attenborough, the ship’s evil captain, shouts “Come on out!” to a hidden murderer he was about to help escape. His cry was the exact counterpoint, in both rhythm and intonation, of a new three note motif:

From this surprising juncture onwards the score proved novel and fascinating. Attenborough’s trisyllabic sentence was crucial from the dramatic standpoint: the ship had not behaved all too decently before, but now its real shame had begun, its doom was sealed. By acquiring the rhythm of the dialogue’s most operatic sentence, the score proved able to replace film-musical tautology by genuinely musico-dramatic interpretation.

This impressed Keller so much that he wondered if “I had not missed many a relevant point while drowsing during the first half of the score; unfortunately I had no opportunity of hearing it a second time.”

On what Peter Pears described as "the eternal struggle between song and words, sound and sense," Keller remarks:

Alwyn’s achievement, hardly imaginable outside the cinema, consists in unifying the two belligerent parties at the very stage where their differences are at their acutest, where speech remains speech and music remains wordless; and the incisive contrast between the two sharpens our wits for the understanding of new musico-dramatic unities between them…Thanks to the cinema, Alwyn has been able to go all the way, nor will his shock treatment easily wear off, for the eternal struggle between music and speech is not likely to become any less eternal in future.

He concludes:

We must not forget that the instrumental version of “Come on out!” is, after all, a surprise of the most genuinely artistic order, for it is a necessary consequence of the extreme contrast to whose extreme unification it draws our attention.

To read all of Keller’s essay, see Film Music and Beyond, pp.87-89. The book is available in both cloth and paperback from all good booksellers.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Paul Griffiths' Ophelia


Paul Griffiths – music critic and historian, novelist, biographer, librettist and beyond – is about to publish a new work entitled, Let Me Tell You, a short novel using only the vocabulary allotted to Ophelia in Hamlet. This constraint, the publisher notes, gives the discourse a haunting and poetic quality. Read an extract here.

Griffiths wrote the libretto for Elliott Carter’s opera, What Next?, which had its premiere in 1999 under Daniel Barenboim. Anyone within reach of Vienna in December will be able to hear the Neue Oper version. Its composition and premiere are covered in Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents by Felix Meyer and Anne C Shreffler, for publication shortly.

Also from our own lists we recommend Paul Griffiths’ acclaimed biography of Jean Barraqué, The Sea on Fire, and his collection of essays, reviews and interviews, Substance of Things Heard, which includes a section on Carter and a superbly evocative piece on Canadian composer, Claude Vivier. “Griffiths writes more eloquently and with greater insight than any of his peers...Illuminating, translucent, sagacious,” said the Times Literary Supplement. We wholeheartedly agree.

Let Me Tell You is available from Reality Street Editions. The Sea on Fire and Substance of Things Heard are available from good music booksellers or from Boydell & Brewer.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Playing Carter with Charles Rosen


In November the University of Rochester Press will publish Variations on the Canon, a collection of essays by leading musicologists in honour of Charles Rosen’s 80th birthday. Covering a range of topics from Bach to Modernism, the book will also include a section on “Criticism and the Critic”, an essay by Rosen himself, and three tributes: from Pierre Boulez, Elliott Carter and Charles Mackerras, from which the following is extracted:

Although conducting the Chopin concertos with Charles was indeed a revelatory experience, for me, the greatest revelation of all was when we did the Elliott Carter Piano Concerto together in 1978. At that time I was Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Although one of the main functions of that orchestra is to play contemporary music, at that time my experience of twentieth-century music was limited to the styles of such composers as Britten, Shostakovich, Bartók, and Schoenberg. Thus, the immense complications of Carter’s Piano Concerto were for me rather daunting. However, Charles had already played the concerto several times in America and was able to steer us successfully through the very gruelling rehearsals, and especially rehearsals with the concertino, which plays such a crucial part in this work. When it came to rehearsals with the full complement of solo piano, concertino, and large symphony orchestra, I was quite nervous when Carter himself appeared. But Charles had as intimate an understanding of that charming man as he did of his cerebral but passionate music, and the composer seemed delighted with our efforts. The concert in the Festival Hall also included the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements and the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, but it was the virtuosity and intellectual power that Charles Rosen brought to the Carter Piano Concerto that transformed it into the hit of the evening.

Later in the year we repeated that memorable concerto at a Prom. The number of rehearsals for the Proms is always fairly severely limited because of the huge number of concerts that the BBC Symphony Orchestra has to perform during that period. But with his extremely sympathetic attitude toward his concertino and the orchestra, Charles got us through, despite the fact that we had less than a quarter of the rehearsal time that we had originally had. Afterward, I remember the Prommers stamping their feet with the same enthusiasm as if it had been a concerto by Tchaikovsky.

Charles and I are approximately the same age, and I regard it as a privilege to have known and worked with him and, in fact, to have learned so much from his prolific writings and his charming conversations. Charles Rosen is one of the truly great musical minds of our time and a great virtuoso to boot.

Variations on the Canon is edited by Robert Curry, David Gable and Robert L. Marshall.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Exploring honkyoku with Minoru Miki


Minoru Miki is one of Japan’s leading contemporary composers. His orchestral works often champion Japanese traditional instruments such as the koto and shakuhati, while his operas are performed to considerable acclaim worldwide (of Joruri, Andrew Porter wrote, “the audience seemed spellbound, and at the close the silence that is the deepest mark of appreciation yielded gradually to cheers and a long standing ovation”). The University of Rochester Press has recently published his classic work, Composing for Japanese Instruments. Here, its translator, Marty Regan, reflects on the origin of the project:

I first met Miki in 2000 when I was enrolled as a government–sponsored research student at Tokyo College of Music. The composition faculty knew I was interested in learning how to compose for Japanese instruments – and urged me to sit in on his classes. These classes – which never had more than half a dozen participants – consisted of listening to Miki’s works and enjoying sometimes hours of anecdotal stories, following by a casual dinner as a group. By the second year, this “class” had dwindled down to two students, and I officially requested Miki as my composition teacher. Early attempts at composing for Japanese instruments were futile. Then, one day Miki asked me to show him the honkyoku – a term used for classical shakuhachi repertoire from the Zen Buddhist tradition – I was working on for my shakuhachi lessons. The ‘scores’ for these pieces, like traditional Japanese texts, are read from right to left and top to bottom. He took the score to this piece and turned it vertically so that what previously appeared to be vertical lines to indicate sustained pitches of indeterminate length now appeared to flow from left to right. In a moment – like a moment of satori, or enlightenment – I discovered how I could compose for Japanese instruments or even Western instruments and imbue them with a Japanese aesthetic – I had to remove the bar lines to allow the music to ‘float’ through time and adopt the graphic ornamentation symbols of shakuhachi honkyoku as a means to notate ‘Japanese’ ornaments in Western staff notation. There were countless moments just like this with Miki, and the original Japanese version of this book served as an invaluable source of reference for my lessons. This allowed me – and his other student! – to come prepared to our lessons with ‘basic’ knowledge such as the ranges of instruments, various idiomatic techniques, and their respective notation. The book helped to demystify these instruments on a profoundly practical level, making the learning curve less steep.

In 1964 Miki founded the Pro Music Nipponia, an ensemble of instrumentalists devoted to creating new repertoire for traditional Japanese instruments. As Artistic Director of the ensemble for over twenty years, they performed more than 160 concerts abroad in an effort to globalize Japanese instruments. Through his collaborations with the members of the Pro Music Nipponia, Miki had an opportunity to perfect his craft and arguably became Japan’s – and hence the world’s – foremost authority on composing for traditional Japanese instruments. Those experiences form the basis for this book. As Miki himself writes in the Afterword after thanking his former colleagues from the Pro Musica Nipponia, “The theories and descriptions in this book are based on notes I have been taking for many years.” I hesitate to simply call this book an orchestration–instrumentation manual, although this is somewhat of the role that it may fulfill for many potential readers. Rather, it is also partly autobiography/aesthetic treatise, as Miki contextualizes the practical details of the instruments into his lifework and musical ideas/compositional approach. Composing for Japanese Instruments was also translated into Chinese, which, according to Miki, has resulted in countless numbers of idiomatic compositions for Japanese instruments by Chinese–literate composers.

Despite the fact that I finished the translation eight years after our initial meeting and felt that I had come a long away in my own creative work with these instruments, having to translate this book for an English–speaking audience forced me to address personal gaps of knowledge. In short, although I had used the book in my lessons and read it in Japanese, for this translation project I had to approach the book with more precision and degree of detail. As I translated the book and struggled through many difficult Chinese character readings and opaque passages, I became aware not only at the extensiveness of Miki’s intimate knowledge of these beautiful instruments, but also his love and passion for them. I sincerely hope, and in fact, predict, that the English translation of this book will lead to an embracing of Japanese traditional instruments on a worldwide scale. Composers from around the world who have wanted to delve into the world of Japanese instruments now have the resources to do so.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The Alwyn Papers


In this second extract from his new biography of William Alwyn, The Innumerable Dance, Adrian Wright discovers some crucial documents in Cambridge. But will they tell him what he needs to know?

What was it that Alwyn’s son Jonathan had said about Doreen Carwithen coming into their lives and ruining everything in the late fifties? The secret had been kept from his family for much longer. And even when we remember what Alwyn confessed in his last years (the time scale not to be trusted), and the pencilled notes in Carwithen’s diaries (whether her tutor was in a jolly mood, or asked her for tea, or kept her waiting while he scurried back from a recording session), and her recollections when she was failing of the afternoon spent in a haystack, we couldn’t hold any of this up as evidence. Alwyn had proudly proclaimed that it had been love at first sight, but when had the relationship changed from teacher-pupil to something more personal? In June 2006, I heard that Barbara Jackson had given some material to the Alwyn archive at Cambridge University. This included a batch of letters from Alwyn to Carwithen. The heart quickened. Could these at last hold the answer to an understanding of what had happened? After all, no other letters from Alwyn to Carwithen had ever been found, although I had vague memories of being told about them when she was confined in her room in a Kessingland nursing home. The archivist at Cambridge, Margaret Jones, was excited, and tantalised me with her enthusiasm. I told her that I was controlling my excitement in case they turned out to be disappointing. ‘They won’t be’ she wrote, ‘I thought they made a lot of things clearer. And I think William comes rather well out of them.’

It was a broiling morning in July when I drove over to look at the letters. My suspicion about the airlessness of the Music Room was confirmed; I was the only person brave enough that morning to sit through several sweltering hours in what was obviously Cambridge’s most elegant sauna. Perhaps the heat had something to do with it, but I turned each page of the letters with less enthusiasm. Where was the blinding light, where was the explanation I looked for? These letters left me more perplexed than before as to what had happened between Olive and Peter and Carwithen and Doreen and Mary and Alwyn. Margaret Jones obviously had a better understanding than I did; his biographer, the man who was supposed to know everything about his subject, had come away from this crucial evidence with all lights dimmed. Craftily, I wrote to her. What had she thought of the letters? I would be most interested to have her views, and I gave no hint of mine (no chance, really, as I had none). This was a dastardly way to carry on. She replied, a long letter, with all the reason that biographers need to be reminded of. And the points she made had the resonance of good sense, with a dash of detective work neatly done.

She felt for Jonathan when she realised that the letters confirmed what we had suspected, that the affair began very much earlier than the late 1950s. This is clear from the very first of that batch of letters sent by Alwyn to Monks Risborough and postmarked 21 July 1945, to ‘My dear Doreen’, with the request that next time she writes she should write ‘Personal’ on the envelope. This in itself suggests that only at this time did she start writing letters to him. A few weeks later she was holidaying in Devon (a favourite retreat) when he wrote from his mother-in-law’s home that he ‘felt very dreary after leaving you […] needless to say I was very wakeful and during the night watches thought of you sitting (I hope) through the long night’. He had been busy recording for a film, and negotiating the rent of a house he had found in Hampstead. He was thinking of her in Devon. ‘You might see some sea lions or seals (do you remember the sea lions?) – very romantic perhaps they will sing to you (did you know seals croon?) […] I went for a country walk yesterday evening and heard distant church bells ring across the woods and fields – this is a lovely world, isn’t it, dear.’

Monday, 6 October 2008

Imogen Holst, Composer

“It is quite impossible to thank you for what you have done for me & meant to me these last months…Everywhere one goes one hears praise & affection for you, …echoed in my own heart,” wrote Benjamin Britten to Imogen Holst in a letter reproduced in the latest volume of Letters from a Life.

It is easy to see Imogen Holst as a handmaiden to others’ creativity: Director of Music at Dartington; Britten’s assistant; editor of her father, Gustav Holst’s, music, etc. However a new CD release reminds us of her own talent as a composer. Court Lane Music, a young group of musicians founded by Simon and Thomas Hewitt Jones, have finally released their CD of Imogen Holst’s String Chamber Music, including such pieces as the magical Fall of the Leaf and the haunting String Quintet, which includes a set of variations on a theme she discovered in one of her father’s notebooks.

Much of this music has remained unpublished and a number of the pieces on this remarkable disc are world premier recordings. It’s a project that has been in the works for some time, one that has felt almost “jinxed” in Simon’s words, and one that the London criminal fraternity couldn’t stop. Reward Court Lane’s tenacity by buying Imogen Holst’s String Chamber Music, and read about her life in Christopher Grogan’s acclaimed biography which includes her own diary covering her time as Benjamin Britten’s music assistant.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Britten Down Under


Philip Reed, one of the editors of Letters from a Life; The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, was recently interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Music Show by presenter, author, musician and composer, Andrew Ford. The interview and the full show may be heard here.

Andrew Ford’s knowledge of and enthusiasm for Britten’s music informs the interview, which lasts for over twenty minutes, and Philip Reed gives a fascinating overview of the material covered by this fourth volume of Britten’s letters. The Music Show is gloriously wide-ranging, focussed – but not exclusively so – on classical music. The list of past interviewees is impressively eclectic: critics such as John Amis and the late Wilfrid Mellers; musicians Nigel Kennedy, Mitsuko Ushida and Trevor Pinnock; and living legends such as Tom Lehrer, bassist Danny Thompson and jazz vibraphone player Gary Burton. Andrew Ford is also a highly-acclaimed composer, with some fine examples of his own music – including the superb Icarus Drowning - available on CD from Tall Poppies.

Letters from a Life is available from good booksellers .

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Czerny in Canada


Carl Czerny (1791-1857) has been described as simultaneously all too familiar and virtually invisible. Pianists will know some of his works from their training, but those are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Let David Gramit – editor of a recent Rochester publication,
Beyond the Art of Finger Dexterityexplain:

What project might bring together classical music performers of the caliber of Anton Kuerti, the piano duo of Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen, and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, as well as numerous scholars, in the apparently unlikely location of Edmonton, Alberta? The perhaps equally unlikely answer: Carl Czerny, the Austrian composer, performer and piano pedagogue whose name is familiar to (but not necessarily beloved of) every pianist for his innumerable and still indispensable studies aimed at developing piano technique. On closer examination, though, Czerny’s central importance becomes comprehensible, for, along with those etudes, he wrote a great deal of music that has increasingly been recognized as worthwhile and interesting in its own right. Furthermore, his astonishingly diverse roles in early nineteenth century musical life — as teacher (of Liszt), composer, editor, scholar, and lifelong advocate for the cause of his erstwhile teacher Beethoven — offer a unique window into the breadth of European musical culture during and after his life.

Few recordings of Czerny’s music were available when Kuerti came across a score for one of Czerny’s few published “serious” works, a piano sonata, at a music store clearing out its stock before closing—a story he recounts here. Since that time, Kuerti has become one of Czerny’s most prominent and determined advocates. The 2002 Edmonton festival of his music that gathered the performers listed above and many others represented a kind of high water mark (so far) for the revival of his music in performance. (The support of the Canadian Centre for Austrian and Central European Studies [now the Wirth Institute] at the University of Alberta helps explain the festival’s location; the festival came about through Kuerti’s musical directorship and the sponsorship of the Centre and the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien.) The more than a dozen recordings now on the market and the music performed at the festival are only the tip of the iceberg. The Gesellschaft’s archive holds a hundred Czerny manuscripts (the archivist, Otto Biba, is another great promoter of Czerny) and even more copies of unpublished works in virtually every genre, from Masses to symphonies to string quartets, not to mention the piano pieces.

All of this made it obvious that Czerny should be examined more closely than he has been in the few scholarly works devoted to him, and, as I edited Beyond the Art of Finger Dexterity, it quickly became apparent to me that the variety of issues to which Czerny was relevant meant that an equal variety of perspectives would have to be represented. Kuerti’s and Biba’s passion for Czerny made them obvious contributors, and their cooperation provided starting points for both the performers’ and the scholars’ viewpoints, at the very highest level. Stylistic and archival studies from musicologists as well as performers provided a counterpoint to cultural studies and considerations of performance practice, and what finally emerged, with the sage editorial guidance of Ralph Locke, series editor for Eastman Studies in Music, is an examination of Czerny’s work and his peculiarly unrecognized but deeply influential legacy. The result is a book that, I think it is fair to say, is as idiosyncratic and multifaceted as its subject.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Meet the Princes


Pamela Blevins, author of the forthcoming Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty, looks at some of Marion Scott’s ancestors – including the “family witch”:

One of the joys of writing a biography is the adventure of playing detective – stumbling on information, following leads that either fizzle or turn to gold, finding clues in odd places and eventually solving mysteries about your subject’s life. Most of Marion Scott’s life was a mystery except the limited public one: “friend and mentor” of Ivor Gurney, biographer of Beethoven, acclaimed authority on Haydn, founder of the Society of Women Musicians, and the troublesome and stubborn “mulish old maid” and “fragile fool” of Gerald Finzi’s too-often quoted experience.

Scott presented quite a challenge until I learned that her ancestors were from Salem, Massachusetts. I’m originally from Massachusetts and Salem was one of those historic places we visited on school trips when I was a child – seafaring community, famous for the witch hunts of 1692, inspiration for the novels of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I soon discovered the roles that Marion Scott’s maternal ancestors - the Prince family - had played in that history.

The first members of Marion’s family journeyed to America from England in the 1620s. They settled in Salem, then called Naumkeag, a small coastal community of crude, one-room, thatched dwellings that stood alongside the bark wigwams and log dugouts of the Indians. Two Prince brothers had started life in the New World as indentured servants but gained their freedom and went on to become businessmen and landowners.

Marion’s great great grandfather Henry Prince I (1764-1846) was a bold, ambitious man who rose from working in a distillery at 15 to becoming a ship owner and sea captain. He sailed from Salem to Sumatra, explored the Indian Ocean, opened trade routes to the Philippines and Zanzibar, and made huge profits in cinnamon, coffee, pepper, hemp, sugar and slaves. He built the West India Goods Store, which is today an historic site under the jurisdiction of the U.S. National Park Service.

Henry’s son Henry II (1787-1854) followed reluctantly in his father’s sea boots, voyaging to South America and the ports of Europe and Russia. He fought in the War of 1812, was a hero in a battle with a British ship (we won’t say what happened to that British ship), eventually settled on a career in the U.S. Revenue Service (now the Coast Guard), but met an inglorious end when he was dismissed for “intemperance”.

Henry’s son George, Marion’s grandfather, spent most of his life in St. Petersburg, where he went at the age of 16 to work in the family mercantile business, William Ropes & Co. By the time he was 21, he and his cousin were managing a thriving commercial fleet of nine American supercargo ships that criss-crossed the seas from Russia to India and from China to New England, the southern ports of the United States and the West Indies with cargoes as diverse as feathers and Franklin stoves. George stayed in Russia, where he and his English wife reared their children, including Marion’s mother.

And I must not forget the family witch. Sarah Osborne, a distant aunt through marriage, was the first woman arrested in the Salem witch hunts of 1692. “An agent of the devil”, she was tried (in a tavern), convicted and sent to a Boston jail where she died chained to an oak post before she could be hanged. She was arrested by the great great grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne. I doubt that Marion knew about this chapter in her family history.

Marion was very fortunate in her parents. Sydney, a solicitor and gifted musician (he worked with Walter Bache to gain wider recognition for Liszt), and Annie Prince Scott, were progressive thinkers and activists (suffrage, temperance, rights for servants) who nurtured their three daughters in a can-do/nothing-is-impossible atmosphere charged with liberal doses of freedom of thought, expression, attitude and behavior. They instilled in them the belief that they were capable of being and of doing whatever they chose in life.

The more I learned about Marion Scott’s background and about Marion herself, the more I came to recognize how significant a role her heritage played in shaping her character, attitudes and values. I also understood why she dared to go where no one had been before, why she had no fear of failure, why she was such a skilled and visionary leader and why others were so willing to follow her. It was in her blood.

Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty will be published by the Boydell Press in November.

Monday, 8 September 2008

An Obsession with Music


The long-awaited biography, Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas will be published on September 18th. It is the culmination of a lifelong interest in Beecham for the author who describes, in this extract from the book’s preface, his first encounter with the great man some sixty years ago:

I first saw Beecham conduct in the late 1940s. I had witnessed Malcolm Sargent in action, and Boult and Barbirolli, and I even retain a vestigial memory of Henry Wood, but I was very young at the time and far more interested in the music that was being played than who was conducting it. The Beecham concert was at the Royal Albert Hall, promoted by the impresario Victor Hochhauser, who in an advertisement had announced that the great man would be giving an introductory talk about the items to be performed. Beecham walked on to the platform purposefully, stepped on to the rostrum, eyed us up and down with an air of hauteur, and paused. ‘Ladies and gentleman’, he said in a voice pitched a bit higher than I was expecting, with the words articulated very precisely, even primly. ‘Mr Hochhauser has said that I shall be talking about tonight’s programme. I shall be doing no such thing.’ And he turned and plunged straight into the most vigorous performance of the National Anthem I had ever heard. (I had no idea that his conducting of it was famous.)

This was pure theatre, pure Beecham. He had caught the audience’s attention and he held it until the end of the concert. I can still recall the magical, diaphanous effect in that first programme of Liszt’s symphonic poem Orpheus, with the perfect balance in the orchestra (it was the year-old Royal Philharmonic) and the subtle grading of the dynamics. Suddenly, for the first time, I was made aware that conducting was not just a matter of beating time but, at its best, an inspired act of recreation.

Beecham is arguably the finest executant musician this country has produced. He was certainly the most influential. He raised orchestral standards in Britain to an unprecedented height. He proved by example that opera was for everyone, and not just for the society-led coterie which, for social as much as musical reasons, attended the short summer seasons at Covent Garden. And, however incredible it might now seem, he was responsible for the works of Mozart and Haydn becoming staples of the concert repertory in Britain and, in Mozart’s case, the operatic repertory as well.

What he was unable to do, despite his tireless advocacy, and his incomparable performances and recordings of the music, was to persuade audiences that Delius was indeed, as he claimed, the ‘last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion and beauty in music’. I recall turning up for an all-Delius concert at the Festival Hall in 1958 to find that so few people had bought tickets for it that Beecham had had to change the second half of the programme to Sibelius’s First Symphony in the hope of attracting more customers. I cannot pretend that it bothered me. Beecham was one of the best Sibelius conductors of his time, a verdict with which the composer himself concurred.

Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas includes a CD of Beecham in rehearsal.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Secrets of Maurice Duruflé


Maurice Duruflé was one of the last great proponents of the French Romantic School of organ playing. For many years he was the organist at the church of Saint Etienne-du-Mont in Paris, on the northeast corner of the large square where the massive Panthéon stands, on the highest hill south of the Seine. He composed a handful of major organ works, a luminously impressionistic chamber work, a major orchestral work (Trois Danses), and, of course, the Requiem, considered to be his greatest work. In this first posting of our Autumn season, James E Frazier describes some of the pit-falls of writing biographies of the recently deceased:

Not every author receives published reviews in advance of a yet-to-be-published book. In my case, two “reviews” appeared nearly five years before the publication in 2007 of Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music (University of Rochester Press), the book I had worked on for perhaps eight years before that.

In the course of my research I discovered the facts about several of Duruflé’s open secrets and thought they merited publishing in two back-to-back articles in The American Organist. At the time, I innocently surmised that their publication would generate interest in the book, and while I correctly anticipated an energetic response, I got much more than I anticipated.

For reasons that remain obscure to me, the fact that Duruflé had a first wife was not to be discussed in polite society. Duruflé’s second wife, the virtuosic organist Marie-Madeleine Duruflé-Chevalier, quickly garnered an international reputation as his primary interpreter, and, after their marriage in 1953, any remembrance of the first wife served no useful purpose. She became one of Duruflé’s open secrets, even though she was a respected teacher of piano and solfège, as I discovered, and was legally Duruflé’s spouse at the time he wrote his major works, including most of the Requiem.

The second secret was not exactly an open one, as nobody knew about it until the late 1990s when the American musicologist Leslie A. Sprout did some research into previously sealed documents from the Vichy era. It was she who disclosed the existence of a government program to provide work to composers by offering them commissions to write symphonic works, operatic works, chamber works, and the like. The program actually began in the waning years of the Third Republic, but Vichy continued it. Duruflé was among eighty-one composers who received commissions from the Vichy government. He agreed to write a symphonic work, but produced the Requiem instead.

Both of these “secrets,” along with a few others (for instance, the fact that Duruflé had studied composition with Charles-Marie Widor though he denied doing so, and the fact that from his adolescence he wore a toupee to cover some unsightly scars to his scalp), were among the material that I presented in the The American Organist.

The journal later published two letters written in response to my articles. One was from Frédéric Blanc, then president of the Association Maurice et Marie-Madeleine Duruflé, in Paris, who was a protégé of Mme Duruflé and lived in the Duruflé apartment on Place du Panthéon, with total control over the Duruflé estate. The other was from Ronald Ebrecht, an American who in 2002 published Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986): The Last Impressionist, for which I supplied a biographical chapter (without mentioning the open secrets). Both men wrote scathing critiques of the articles.

Mr. Blanc declared the articles “an accumulation of false information and insulting implications concerning the Duruflés, who were upright, honest, and virtuous artists,” saying my research was based on “small anecdotes, things [I] considered sensational, and some perfectly indiscreet revelations concerning the private life of Maurice Duruflé, a procedure considered to be in very bad taste in France.”

Mr. Ebrecht lamented that my articles constituted “an extreme disservice” to the journal’s readers, who were thus treated “with both disdain and disregard,” and claimed that my treatment of the first wife and Duruflé’s baldness constituted poor taste, insofar as they brought “no demonstrable influence upon his music.” Neither of the letter writers mentioned the Vichy commission specifically, but one can well assume that both men thought the matter entirely too sensitive to mention. So much for pre-publication reviews.

In support of his position, Mr. Blanc solicited letters from five prominent French organists, including one of the titular organists at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. These he submitted (in French only) to the editor of the journal, who refused to print them. He subsequently published them in the French journal of the Duruflé Association. All the writers were incensed by my articles, but none offered any specific response to the points treated in them, suggesting that for them the open secrets were still too sensitive to name, even in rebuttal.

Duruflé’s secrets were real, and some of them remain unexplored or unexplained. Their answers - if there be any - may lie hidden in the Duruflé apartment, among the papers still protected by Frédéric Blanc, with no forecast as to when they might be opened to researchers.

Monday, 28 July 2008

What’s in a pronoun?


From Beyond the Stave is now taking a short summer break with new postings beginning again at the end of August. In the meantime we leave you with a fascinating piece by Ian Woodfield based on his forthcoming book, Mozart's Così fan tutte: A Compositional History:

On the dust jacket of my book is reproduced a small fragment of Mozart’s handwriting: ‘Rivolgete à lui lo sguardo’, which translates as ‘Turn your gaze upon him’. With these words, Guglielmo proposes how the two sisters should pair off with their disguised lovers. It is immediately apparent that Mozart left a blank where ‘lui’ should have gone. His inability to write down the necessary pronoun is remarkable, considering that this aria comes at a critical turning point in the drama. In the end, someone else had to add it in, while in his own catalogue, he recorded a different first line altogether: ‘Rivolgete à me’.

Similar indecision is seen in the duet between Ferrando and Fiordiligi. Again, duplicity is in the air, and again Mozart was briefly unclear in his mind as to which pronouns were needed. Fiordiligi recognises that her constancy (‘la mia costanza’) is wavering, but what of Ferrando? His balancing line was changed twice: from ‘la sua costanza’ to ‘la mia costanza’ and back again. The editors of the Neue Mozart Ausgabe believed that this intermediate version was in fact ‘la tua costanza’.

There is a further example of pronoun fluidity in Don Giovanni, an opera in which there is generally little room for doubt as to what the characters on stage are thinking. In the final scene, in a moment of Così-like ambiguity, the feelings of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio for each other are far from clear. Mozart had once more to correct his pronouns, switching the letters ‘m’ and ‘t’. These signify the first or second person in the phrase ‘Al desio di chi m’ / t’adora’, which (in one form or another) is sung by both these lovers.

The unexplained discrepancy in the pronoun at the start of Guglielmo’s aria provided the starting point for this study, an earlier attempt at a monograph on Mozart as the would-be Engländer having failed. I began by trying to invent plausible solutions to this mystery, using imagination rather than factual evidence. These were unconvincingly elaborate, falling foul of a good principle of historical research that the simpler explanation is usually the preferable one. Yet over time I started to become aware that a better answer lay just below the surface of my consciousness, and the moment when this finally broke through was an exhilarating one: right or wrong, the idea that Mozart considered a plot structure in which each officer would seduce his own lover, was a workable hypothesis. It appealed immediately to my liking for lateral thinking. To the age-old question, should the original couples be restored at the end of the opera or not, we could now respond: perhaps they were not separated in the first place!

Starting out with a hypothesis and then seeking evidence to prove it is a risky procedure. There is a real danger that creative fiction will be the result. Yet I would not have been able to ‘deduce’ this theory from an objective collation of all the relevant data. For one thing, a theory of this kind tends to determine itself what is or is not perceived as being evidence. In retrospect, the initial question still seems a good one, and I remain convinced that the enigma of Così fan tutte is in some way connected to uncertainty over its pairings.

To complete this study, it was necessary to examine all the early Abschriften or copies. The lack of a proper philological account of these came as a complete surprise to me, and I spent a lot of time constructing one for my ‘compositional history’, as it was now called. Even in this last phase of work, questions about pronouns refused to go away. Scholars have sometimes expressed puzzlement over the word ‘noi’ (us) in the second stanza of Fiordiligi’s celebrated aria of resistance ‘Come scoglio’. Who is this other person on behalf of whom she suddenly appears to be speaking? By the time that the Vienna Court Theatre copy was being prepared, however, ‘noi’ (us) had already become ‘voi’ (you). The pronouns in the Act II duet underwent an even more drastic realignment. Were we to hear the opera in this form, we would listen, doubtless with growing amazement, as Fiordiligi expresses concern over Ferrando’s constancy, while he adopts an introspective pose, worrying about his own loyalty. Surely this must be a mistake? Or is it? Either way, the meaning of Così is bound up with the fate of its pronouns.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The irresistible Dora


Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music by John Lucas is one of the highlights of our autumn publication schedule. In this much shortened extract from Chapter 10 we learn how the conductor met soprano Dora Labbette.

On 15th December 1926 at Queen’s Hall, Beecham conducted a pioneering and revelatory performance of Handel’s Messiah, for which, instead of the unwieldy, elephantine choir traditionally thought suitable for the work in London, he used the smallish Philharmonic Choir, trained by Charles Kennedy Scott and full of fresh, talented and enthusiastic young voices. The London Symphony Orchestra’s playing was unusually surefooted, which the New Statesman’s critic, W.J. Turner, attributed to the fact that the orchestra had been playing on tour under Beecham for some weeks, and as a result ‘had got thoroughly into form and accustomed to his style’. Tempi were fleet, textures light.

The soprano soloist, Dora Labbette, was a dark-haired, down-to-earth beauty with a racy sense of humour who maintained that Beecham chose her for the event after seeing a photograph of her during a visit to her agents, Ibbs & Tillett. Born Dorothy Bella Labbett at Woodside, near Croydon, the daughter of a railway porter, she had shown a talent for singing from an early age and during the First World War had won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music, where in 1917 she crowned a series of awards by winning the Gold Medal.

Labbette’s voice was once perceptively described as being ‘of a timbre which is peculiarly individual in its charm – the clear purity of a boy soprano touched with womanly warmth and sweetness’. Beecham fell in love with the sound. He also fell in love with twenty-eight year old Labbette, and in due course began an affair with her that would last thirteen years. At the time of the Messiah Beecham was forty-seven.

Incidentally, Beecham’s performance of the Messiah was generally greeted with considerable enthusiasm: the Guardian, for example, found it ‘a welcome substitute for the ballasted, coarsened, and square-cut versions that are too often so confidently given out as the real Handel’ while the afore-mentioned Mr Turner considered it ‘one of the greatest musical achievements of a generation of concert giving in London.’ Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music will be published in September, and will include a CD of the conductor in rehearsal.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The honorary gentleman


The latest volume in our Music in Britain 1600-1900 series is Suzanne Cole's study of Thomas Tallis in the 19th century. Here the author explains how she came to her subject:

The origins of my book, Thomas Tallis and his Music in Victorian England, can be traced back to my student years at Melbourne University in the early 1980s. Although I was actually enrolled in a science degree, I also took organ lessons with Revd. Paul Harvie, an eccentric, infuriating, but inspiring Anglo-Catholic priest of the very ‘highest’ kind. After a couple of years, in the absence of suitable male candidates, Paul made me his assistant organist at the parish of Christ Church, Brunswick, and began, somewhat grudgingly (he was not known for his enlightened views on women), to initiate me into the mysteries of what he referred to on recruiting flyers for choir boys as the ‘900 year tradition’. There is much that could be criticised about Paul’s methods – I was occasionally allowed to sing with the choir, but never to robe or process, and was always referred to as an ‘honorary gentlemen’, and he was famous for flying into a rage if foolish parents allowed their child to make any noise in church. But his quixotic commitment to maintaining the English Cathedral tradition in a parish church in a working-class suburb of Melbourne was both inspiring and intriguing.

So my book is – albeit indirectly – an attempt to explore this tradition, and perhaps more importantly the romanticised myths that surround it. But it also explores the essential differences between the culture of church music and what is now the dominant secular culture of the concert hall, and the historical transition between the two. By taking a single composer and following attitudes towards him and his music over an extended period of time, I have, I hope, been able to show how attitudes have changed, how myths have developed and shifted, and how the music was made to serve the cultural and religious agendas of the day.

So why Tallis? The obvious reason is that for several centuries Tallis was the Father of English Church Music. I had thought that this definition had ceased to be relevant sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, but I recently stumbled across it on the official website of the TV series The Tudors, so the tradition lingers on. (I am at a loss though as to what this astonishingly imaginative depiction of Tallis and his poor wife Joan tells us about the reception of early music!).

And why Victorian England? Because, pace Fr Paul, most of the traditions that he was celebrating and preserving, rather than dating back 900 years, don’t extend back much further than the early to mid-nineteenth century. And of course, once I started researching I found that these traditions weren’t quite what I expected anyway.

The research for this book, which took place in intensive bursts during trips to the UK (there’s nothing like a 26-hour flight to focus the mind!), was a delight: the excitement of finding a review of a performance after hours, or even days, of trawling through newspapers; the privilege of holding the early seventeenth-century manuscript of Spem in alium. But the moment of highest excitement was without doubt finding the handbill for the 1835 Anniversary Festival of the Madrigal Society, which proved that, contrary to popular belief, Spem had not been performed that year. Someone, and I’m afraid I can’t remember who, suggested that I contact Oliver Davies, as the portraits and programs collection at the Royal College of Music might have some useful material. So in I went. Oliver, who was not a young man at the time, took me on an amazing journey through the bowels of the RCM – up stairs, round corners, down narrow corridors – all at break neck speed. If he’d abandoned me I doubt whether I would ever have found my way out again. Finally we ended up in what I remember, quite possibly incorrectly, as a tiny room high in a tower, piled from floor to ceiling with bundles of paper and boxes full of concert programs. I told him what I was interested in and he immediately dived into one of the many piles, pulled out a box and extracted a single piece of paper – the only nineteenth-century Madrigal Society program that they had. And by what I still consider to be some sort of miracle, it was the one that I needed!

I’m still not entirely sure why I have been so completely entranced by the ‘900 year tradition’, why I spent quite so many hours listening to Bernard Rose’s recording of Tomkins with the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford, as an 18-year-old science student. But I hope that this book brings us some little way closer to an understanding of our collective relationship with the music of the early English church.

Suzanne Cole's book is available now. Those interested in the '900 year tradition', may be interested to look here.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Hugh Macdonald’s Obsessive Moments


We welcome Hugh Macdonald to the Eastman Studies in Music series with his entertaining and revealing book of essays, Beethoven’s Century. In it he looks at aspects of Schubert’s musical personality, the brief friendship between Berlioz and Schumann, Liszt’s abilities as a conductor…but let Professor Macdonald tell you about it:

I find that writing about music can only be driven by curiosity and the desire to get to the bottom of some teasing problem that arises from music one plays or hears or reads. This might be the ambition to cover the entire life and works of an individual, or to chart great cultural movements, but it can equally take the form of solving a small mystery, or putting an unusual aspect of a composer's work under the microscope. I once wrote a short article (never published) on a single note in Puccini's Crisantemi.

My collection Beethoven's Century contains essays that mostly arose from such obsessive moments when an idea once settled in the mind needs to be explored, expanded and expounded. Repeats, for example, was my way of checking what we are supposed to do with the repeat signs that are found in all classical instrumental music. Having played a great deal of chamber and orchestral music, I was struck by the way musicians responded to repeats, sometimes with reverence, sometimes without. Which repeats did composers write? Which did they want? Why did they drop out of favour, and when?

My essay on Comic Opera was driven by noticing that comic opera and dialogue opera were less well served in our opera houses than the heavier genres. Is it not time to correct the imbalance, I ask. The closing essay, Modernisms that Failed, attempts to question the received history of early 20th-century music, while giving a moment's attention to some of the crazier advances that seemed promising at the time, but actually led nowhere. Smell-music, colour-music, noise-music and machine-music are some of the fads that might well appeal to listeners as strongly as those of our own time.

The opening essay Beethoven's Game of Cat and Mouse pursues a path suggested by Czerny's story that he used to turn on his obsequious audiences when they became visibly moved by his playing. This is cruel behaviour, since we think we ought to be moved by his music. Beethoven teases us in all sorts of subtle ways, always leaving us in no doubt of who's in command. In this elaborate game, I argue, Beethoven is the cat and we are no more than mice. No one was more aware of his colossal stature than he was himself, as if he had already annexed the whole of the nineteenth century as his own.

Beethoven’s Century is available now from your favourite bookseller, online or otherwise.