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.