Friday, 31 July 2009

The most glorious of English symphonies

The opening week of the BBC Proms featured an evening of British music, including Elgar’s 2nd symphony, Finzi’s Grand Fantasia and Toccata and the Symphony in G Minor by E J Moeran. ‘Moeran is still one of the least known and understood British composers,’ according to Geoffrey Self, author of The Music of E J Moeran. Yet the symphony is described by Lewis Foreman in his biography of Bax, Moeran’s contemporary, as ‘one of the most glorious of English symphonies.’ Here, in an edited extract from his book, Geoffrey Self outlines the difficult birth of this superb work:

By the middle years of Moeran’s life, Kerry had become as necessary to him as Norfolk had been in his early years. He delighted in the Irish scene, the Irish people and Irish life. The disguise of the poet William Sharp as ‘Fiona McLoed’ or that of Bax as ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ may today encourage amused, if tolerant, smiles; yet with Moeran, at least, we might well feel, with Aloys Fleischmann, that he became Irish. Certainly, he was accepted as such, as Bax makes clear:

The people of Kenmare adored him. One of them remarked to me: ‘If ever there was a move to elect a mayor of this town Jack Moeran would be everybody’s first choice’. His popularity was immense, even, it must be admitted, sometimes to the point of embarrassment.

A work to bridge both English and Irish cultures was the Symphony in G Minor. The work had a chequered history: commissioned in 1924 by Hamilton Harty and almost completed, it was withdrawn as the composer was unhappy with it. He resumed work on it in 1934 and with Harty’s encouragement was occupied with it for another two and a half years. Harty received news of its progress from time to time; Robert Nichols, a poet and friend of Moeran, had spoken to him of it, and in March 1935 Harty wrote to the composer:

He spoke of your Symphony as being partly completed. This was good news, and I am looking forward to seeing…the score lying between us as we discuss various points of interpretation! Good luck to your pen and may this summer bring you the necessary inspiration and lucky moods for work so that the Symphony may be finished.

According to the pencilled note on the autograph score, the Symphony was finally completed ‘on Jan. 24th 1937, 2.45 p.m. Valentia Island’. Its composition had spanned some twelve years and two environments – those of Norfolk and of Kerry.

In the event, the work did not receive its first performance under Harty – that honour fell to Leslie Heward, who conducted it at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert in January 1938. Why not Harty? The misunderstanding and handling of this episode provide some insight into Moeran’s clumsiness in dealing with fellow professionals.

In September 1937 Moeran had written to Harty to explain that because of the latter’s recent illness, his publisher and the BBC had arranged for Heward to conduct the first performance. Nevertheless he hoped that Harty would accept the dedication. ‘May I write your name at the head of the score?’ he asked, before mentioning the work progressing on his violin concerto. Clearly Harty misunderstood, and thought he was being offered the concerto instead. We do not have his reply but it must have been fairly salty as Moeran’s next letter has the air of affronted innocence. ‘It is a terrible disappointment to me that you do not feel inclined to accept the dedication. I have no wish to dedicate it to anyone else, so it must stand without one.’

In the end though, Moeran had his way, and the dedication to Harty stands. Heward, however, not only gave the first performance but also made the first recording. Acquainted with Heward since the early 1920s, Moeran had come to share the almost universal view that the modest, cloth-capped conductor was the finest British conductor of his day. He heard a number of performances of his Symphony and never made any secret of the fact that he considered Heward to be its finest interpreter.

The Music of E J Moeran by Geoffrey Self, with a Preface by the late Vernon Handley, is published by Toccata Press and distributed worldwide by Boydell & Brewer.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Looking for Erik

Recently we posted a short excerpt from John Purser’s new biography of Erik Chisholm. Here John explains how he came to write the book:

I never meant to write this book. Someone else was supposed to do it but, half way through the money and time allotted for the task, the arrangement with the Erik Chisholm Trust fell through. I sat there looking at my fellow Trustees, each one of them looking directly at me with alarmingly clear intent. What could I do? I was fascinated by the man, loved what little of his music I knew, was incapable of denying his eldest daughter (who was chairing the meeting), and wasn’t quick enough to think of any excuse save that as a Trustee I could not employ myself.

“Resign!” came the happy chorus. “Resign!” So I did.

I snuck out of the meeting and when I was called back subsequently, like some naughty schoolboy, found myself committed to writing a critical biography of a man whose doings had left an amazingly copious musical trail, much of which was housed in the Archives in Cape Town. Well, sometimes there are perks! On the other hand, the time scale was terrifying. One year was all that was left, and Erik Chisholm was prolific. The man had made a massive impression on three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) and had by no means gone unnoticed on a fourth (North America). But he was also a full-blooded Scot and had done particular honour to his native music, with unmatched insight and daring. As I had published a history of Scottish music from earliest times to the present day (Scotland’s Music Mainstream 1992 and 2007), and had even overlapped with him as a composer in Scotland, I had to admit a certain responsibility to accept the challenge.

What I eventually submitted to the Erik Chisholm Trustees and the University of Central England, Birmingham Conservatoire (joint commissioners of the book) is not quite the book that I hope you are going to buy. It has been re-arranged and shortened (always a good thing), and is well illustrated with music examples and photographs. Even some colour! Boydell & Brewer have done Erik Chisholm proud. But so they should.

Was it fun? Absolutely. To walk up through the flower-draped walls of the steep lane that led up to the magnificent University of Cape Town campus, with Table Mountain behind, in all its sunlit grandeur; to cross the first terrace with its rugby pitches and make the ascent of the broad steps that led upward from terrace to terrace until one faced the handsome portico of the main hall; and then to turn round and look across the plain to the haze of distant mountains – well, it made me feel like some great academic hero as I finally reached the welcoming Department of Manuscripts and Archives and settled down to work with the constantly kind and efficient help of the staff. There I would work through countless documents and scores, coming across memories of musicians I had known personally, and coming across music of stunning beauty and invention.

Many other pleasures were mine – notably meeting Erik’s daughters, his widow and his former colleagues, and especially working with his eldest daughter Morag, who has inherited her father’s drive and energy. But it is Erik Chisholm’s music that has given me the greatest return. I cannot now imagine life without the knowledge that I can listen once again to his powerful Night Song of the Bards; or the wonderful contrast of mediaeval terror and exquisite mediaeval bliss in his Pictures from Dante; or the desperate intensity of his opera Dark Sonnet which I saw performed in Cape Town along with The Pardoner’s Tale; or the ravishing sensuality of his Hindustani Piano Concerto; or the heart-breakingly lovely Scottish works, honouring a tradition which I have loved for so long.

If one loves one’s subject, there is a chance that one will infect the reader with one’s own enthusiasms. It does not mean that one is uncritical. Objectivity is a vital aspect of the scholar’s work, never mind the biographer’s, and this book aims to combine both. But music reaches out to the heart and the body as well as the mind. It makes us want to dance, to sing, to cry, for sorrow and for joy. One lives more fully because of it, and I have lived more fully because of Erik Chisholm. I hope this book will at least open the doors for you to share some of those same enrichments.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Georgette, Mary and Maggie

Anyone who missed BBC Radio 3 Music Matters' feature on Debussy's Mélisande last Saturday can listen to it on the BBC website or download the programme as a podcast. Here, author Gillian Opstad describes how she became fascinated by the opera and the three women involved in its early years:

I cannot remember a time when I did not love the music of Debussy. My first exposure to Pelléas et Mélisande was the aesthetically pleasing boxed set of the opera produced in 1957 by La Voix de son Maître, conducted by Cluytens with Victoria de los Angeles as Mélisande. The delicate Vuillard painting of Pelléas and Mélisande by the well (from the foyer of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées) on the front cover of the booklet perfectly conveyed the atmosphere of the music contained on those three LPs. At that time I hardly cared about the story. My response as a teenager was a purely emotional one to the music, which somehow seemed to encapsulate the essence of ‘Frenchness’. The introductory notes of Vuillermoz mentioned the quarrel between Maeterlinck and Debussy brought about by Debussy’s ‘refusal’ to allow Georgette Leblanc to sing the role of Mélisande and referred to the ‘irremplaçable Mary Garden’, but it was not until many years later, listening to a CD of Maggie Teyte, that I started to wonder why the two first Mélisandes were British, and how the second, the daughter of a Wolverhampton publican, came to sing the role.

I obtained copies of the autobiographies of Georgette, Mary and Maggie. Then, determined to research the background to the opera objectively, I approached it in the manner of detective work, rather than resorting immediately to secondary sources. Before visiting libraries and archives I collected the reminiscences of Debussy’s friends and performers during my visits to secondhand bookshops in Paris (a fascinating way of exploring the city), and this certainly brought him and his contemporaries to life as did the huge volume of Debussy’s correspondence collected and edited by Lesure and Herlin which is the most essential key to the composer’s life and personality and makes completely absorbing reading. It was strange how things fell into my hands once I started looking. In a shop selling old journals and newspapers, I headed for two boxes stacked full of old theatre programmes. I put my hand randomly into the middle of one and the first thing I pulled out was the original 1908 programme of Maggie Teyte’s first Mélisande. I was not so lucky with Georgette Leblanc here. Having stared with delight at the 1899 edition of the journal Le Théâtre with the gloriously colourful picture of her as Carmen on the front, I left it on a table, but on returning to pick it up it had disappeared. The shopowner and I looked everywhere, but someone – another fan of Georgette? - must have taken it! In other shops the discoveries of authors’ signatures inside Sous les étoiles by Lugné-Poë and books on Debussy by Inghelbrecht, Pasteur Vallery-Radot, Maurice Dumesnil and Lesure brought me nearer to them and their subject matter.

After reading existing biographies of my three subjects in order to compare these with their autobiographies, I was still left with a feeling of dissatisfaction about Maggie Teyte, and decided to examine her genealogy. This was not an easy task, although obviously made simpler today with access to some of the records on computer. How complicated her background and early life turned out to be, one she was anxious to expunge from her memory.

Maggie’s tale of her role in the transition period at the Opéra-Comique between Mary Garden and Marguerite Carré demonstrated the highly-charged atmosphere at the opera house and caused me to consider whether the derogatory remarks made by all and sundry about Maeterlinck’s mistress, Georgette Leblanc, were fully justified. I was therefore delighted when I was granted access to her memoirs and memorabilia in the Archives et Musée de la Littérature in Brussels. Her larger than life character shines out from her handwriting which covers just about everything she could lay hands on. One could sense that her propensity for overacting would influence her singing style. Her admirers, from journalists to composers, certainly existed and wrote of their appreciation. Her detractors were often critics disappointed at her influence on the writings of Maurice Maeterlinck, believing it was she who had weaned him away from mysterious Symbolism to a more prosaic stronger image of womanhood. The story of her relationship with Maeterlinck, his initial adoration of her, the disparate nature of their characters, and his eventual marriage to a woman many years his junior became compulsive research. Her obsessive desire to perform Mélisande was touching and to read her account of the play she put on in the Abbey of St-Wandrille showed a passion both for the work and for the romantic environment that she and Maeterinck inhabited. Her life was no less dramatic after their break-up, and the fidelity of the two women with whom she ended her life was moving.

Mary Garden’s personal memorabilia, her notebooks and albums with their cursory remarks and so many mementos of performances demonstrate the closeness to her family of a personality who gloried in fame, yet managed to keep concealed private details of her life – even her date of birth! She would have laughed at my experience when researching her rehearsal schedules, costumes and reviews, held at the Bibliothèque de l’Opéra in Paris, one of my prearranged days coinciding with that most Parisian of activities, a strike. Having obtained access with difficulty, getting out at closing time proved even more of a problem. I ended up descending Garnier’s grand staircase, briefcase in hand, between two lines of ladies dressed in the colourful national costume of South Korea, who bowed graciously as I passed.

The extraordinarily evocative power of the combination of words and music in Pelléas et Mélisande brought tears to the eyes of the opera’s first prospective soloists when Debussy sang all the parts, accompanying himself at the piano. Simply succumbing to emotion, however, is to ignore the immense skill of the tight structure of the score. This skill is so great, that as with many things in life, the greater the effort that has gone into the making of a masterpiece, the simpler it appears. Mary Garden and Maggie Teyte followed Debussy’s instructions and combined to perfection the external apparent simplicity of the vocal part with the complexity of character lying beneath the surface. Georgette Leblanc longed for the opportunity to do the same, but had to wait for her turn in America. The accounts of all three of their encounters with Debussy reveal much about their own characters as well as that of the composer.

Debussy's Mélisande by Gillian Opstad is available now from all good booksellers.