Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas Post

As snow falls on both our US office in Rochester NY and our UK home in Woodbridge, Suffolk, we draw our chairs a little closer to the fire, cup our gloved hands around a mug of mulled wine and look back on our publishing programme for 2010:

Alexander Zemlinsky ‘leaves us in no doubt of just how complex and how crucial Zemlinsky's personal and professional relations were’, declared the Gramophone.
CHOICE claimed that there is ‘nothing quite like [Reading Mahler]’ - an essential addition to the centenary literature.
Busoni as Pianist: Svetlana Belsky’s new translation of Grigory Kogan’s classic study.
The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola reveals the great twentieth-century Italian composer's innovative handling of harmony, form and text setting.
The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola: a paperback edition of a book described as ‘an overdue landmark in Dallapiccola studies’ by the UK’s Classical Music magazine.
Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love: a controversial book that divided Wagnerite opinion, but it was one of the Financial Times’ top music books of 2010.
Wagner’s Ring in 1848 presents an English translation Wagner's original Siegfried libretto and his early essay on the Nibelung myth.
Art and Ideology in European Opera examines the interplay between opera, art and ideology across three centuries.
Ian Woodfield’s The Vienna Don Giovanni looks at the compositional history of Mozart’s opera.
Samuel Barber Remembered: Peter Dickinson’s collection of interviews and essays shed new light on this popular - and misunderstood - composer.
Robert Riggs’ Leon Kirchner is the first biography of the great American modernist who died in 2009.
The Whistling Blackbird is the charming title of composer Robert Morris’ essays and talks on music.
‘One of the best-written books about a musician to appear for many years’ said BBC Music of Diana McVeagh’s Gerald Finzi, newly available in paperback.
BBC Music of the Glock Era and After: Leo Black’s mixture of memoir and portraits enchanted reviewers.
The fifth volume of Benjamin Britten’s Letters from a Life covers the period of his pacifist masterpiece, War Requiem.
Completely revised and updated, Imogen Holst: A Life in Music, was issued in paperback in November.
The New Aldeburgh Anthology was also reissued in paperback, bringing Benjamin Britten’s Suffolk and the Aldeburgh Festival to life as never before.
Of Poetry and Song is a truly interdisciplinary study of text-music relations in the German Lied.
Essays on the History of English Music in Honour of John Caldwell looked at music from the medieval carol to the twentieth century.
Marianna Martines ‘sets new standards [for books on women composers]’ observed the Musical Times.
Juan Esquivel: A Master of Sacred Music during the Spanish Golden Age is the first study of this master of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
New in paperback from Toccata Press, The Harmonious Musick of John Jenkins (Volume I) concentrates on the composer’s music for viols.
The Consort Music of William Lawes 1602-1645 was described as ‘vivid’ (TLS) in its portrayal of Lawes’ music at the Court of Charles I.
Peter Phillips thought the Balcarres Lute Book a ‘beautiful publication’ in the TLS. A revelation for lute players worldwide.
Peter Holman’s Life After Death: The Viola da Gamba in Britain from Purcell to Dolmetsch is a fascinating new study of the history of the viol.
The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is a long-overdue study of the music of the eldest of Bach’s four composer sons.
Szymanowski on Music, newly paperbacked, includes selected essays and other pieces by the most important Polish composer since Chopin.
Martinu and the Symphony is not only the first book in English but by far the most comprehensive work on the subject in any language.
At the heart of Comrades in Art is the correspondence of the composer-pianists Percy Grainger (1882-1961) and Ronald Stevenson (b. 1928).
The older composer is celebrated in The New Percy Grainger Companion, a new collection with contributions from performing musicians and Grainger scholars.
Tully Potter’s monumental Adolf Busch, thirty years in the making, was described as ‘a magnificent achievement, one to challenge all future biographers of any musician,’ by Fanfare.
Beethoven's Chamber Music in Context shows how the larger scale works relate to the chamber music and how the composer evolved an increasing freedom of form.
Bernarr Rainbow on Music includes a memoir and selected writings by the leading historian of music education.
Good Music for a Free People examines the activities of the Germania Musical Society, a group of immigrant musicians who toured the United States from 1848-1854.
A Tanner's Worth of Tune is the first book on the post-war British musical, described as ‘an instant must-have for any lover…of musical theatre’ by the Stage.

A very happy Christmas and a harmonious New Year from all at Boydell & Brewer, the University of Rochester Press, Toccata Press and Plumbago Books.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Herzliche Glückwünsche zum Geburtstag, Wilhelm Friedemann!

As 2010 comes to an end, lovers of keyboard music will remember the bicentenaries observed during the year for Chopin and Schumann. Some will look forward to that of Liszt in 2011, while others will recall Mendelssohn's in 2009. Before 2011 is over, all these composers will have been the subjects of numerous symposia, festivals, and publications. Yet it would be a shame, in the midst of these celebrations, to overlook the fact that the present year has marked the three-hundredth birthday of another composer arguably of comparable merit: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, born at Weimar on Nov. 22, 1710.

Friedemann, the oldest son of the great Johann Sebastian Bach, has often been described as the most brilliant of his father's children. No fewer than five of the latter became professional musicians; four are known to have been composers. Of these, Sebastian's second son Carl Philipp Emanuel, born in 1714, is now probably the best known, his music the most frequently performed. But Emanuel has long been rivaled by Johann Christian, the youngest of all (born 1735), thanks in part to his influence on the young Mozart. Friedemann has never been so well known or appreciated, and although a new critical edition of his works began to come out in 2009, before the appearance of my recent book he and his music had been the subject of only a single monograph, published in German in 1913.

Unlike some Bach specialists, I've always been interested in the music of the sons as well as the father, not to mention other members of the family. Virtually all of them were, of course, keyboard players, writing substantial quantities of music for harpsichord, organ, clavichord, and (in some cases) early pianos. Most, including Friedemann, also made important contributions to chamber, orchestral, and vocal repertories. A keyboard player myself, since my college days I have been fortunate enough to have had access to their music, and to good instruments on which to play it.

But even on a good clavichord or fortepiano, Friedemann's music, although often very expressive, is challenging for both player and listener. His friend J. N. Forkel (Sebastian's first biographer) even said of one piece that the difficulties of learning to play it were incommensurate with the rewards of hearing it. Nevertheless, as Friedemann's tercentenary approached, I felt that the time was ripe to test this and other perceptions of his music by subjecting it to a careful critical review. Even if some of the music is indeed not worth the challenges of learning it—a position far from certain—the question of how Friedemann's distinctive style might have emerged within the Bach household was certainly an intriguing one. Therefore, about three years ago I set out to examine and write about all of his surviving works.

Having previously done something similar for all of Sebastian's keyboard works, I knew what I was getting into. In the case of Friedemann, the task did not appear to be as difficult. True, only about half his music was available in modern editions, and some of these are quite old and not terribly reliable. But the German scholar Peter Wollny, in his Harvard dissertation of 1993 and subsequent publications, had laid the groundwork for a critical re-examination of Friedemann's music. And virtually all of the music was available at least in microfiche facsimiles of eighteenth-century manuscripts, many of these the composer's autographs. Best of all, Friedemann left only about one hundred works, making it possible to study and write about his entire surviving output much more quickly than would be the case for, say, Emanuel, whose collected music comprises perhaps ten times as many compositions.

When I began the process, I thought I knew Friedemann's music reasonably well. After all, I had performed a number of his sonatas and fantasias, and I knew his famous flute duos as well as recordings of several of his concertos and vocal works. I had examined the manuscript of his flute concerto almost as soon as it had become available in Berlin in 2002. The general impression I had from these was, as various scholars had observed previously, of a style that combined elements of his father's contrapuntal manner with the so-called galant style popular in the mid-eighteenth century, and more specifically the so-called empfindsamer version of the latter associated with Emanuel.

As I worked on the book, however, it became clear that this was an over-simplification. And although I found myself confirming some of the oft-repeated assertions about the peculiar challenges of Friedemann's music—and of his own personality—I realized that he was far more his own composer than I had realized, distinct from Emanuel and other contemporaries in certain aspects of his approach to both composition and performance. Forkel had reported that both brothers, realizing the impossibility of equalling their father, had determined to be original, musically distinct from Sebastian. Clearly they had also turned out to be distinct from one another as well.

How could two brothers, born in the same town into the same family just four years apart, have turned out so differently, in their music as well as in their careers and personalities? The biographical side of this question must remain obscure, for we simply lack the requisite documents, especially with respect to Friedemann. This is so despite the survival of unique sources such as the famous Little Keyboard Book for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a manuscript (now at Yale University) prepared for the young Friedemann by his father, or several pages of counterpoint studies that Friedemann, now a young professional in his twenties, wrote out jointly with Sebastian. These naturally deserved close consideration in the book, and I decided to devote a chapter to Friedemann's musical upbringing.

But as intriguing as Friedemann's personal development and character may be, our questions about it are largely unanswerable except within the realm of fiction—which may be one reason why he, alone of his brothers, has been the subject of a novel, plays, and even two operas. These largely ignore historical realities, although the 1941 film Friedemann Bach is surprisingly true to life in some respects. For instance, one scene depicts him improvising for an aristocratic audience; he performs fragments of three actual works, on a real eighteenth-century harpsichord that the historical Friedemann may have known, now in Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin.

The really interesting things in the life of a musician, however, are his or her works. I therefore chose to focus my book on Friedemann's compositions, which fall into three categories: keyboard works, music for instrumental ensemble, and vocal music. The last category was the most difficult to write about, for relatively few of the compositions are published. At first I intended to consider only representative examples—mostly sacred cantatas—especially as they were more or less dismissed by most commentators. Yet as I studied them, often in Friedemann's own barely legible manuscripts, I realized that—like the equally underestimated vocal music of Emanuel—they too deserve careful consideration. Particularly notable was a large secular cantata or serenata in honor of King Frederick the Great of Prussia—a musical monarch more frequently associated with Emanuel, yet important at least indirectly in the life of Friedemann, who, after starting his career in Saxon territory, eventually followed Emanuel (and Christian) to Prussia and its capital Berlin. Indeed, the journey of this son of Bach from Dresden, with its musical culture dominated by Italian opera, to a more northerly region where subtle chamber music reigned supreme, became an important theme of my book.

One challenge that I had to overcome in writing the book was the absence of legible or accurate scores for many of Friedemann's major works. Without such scores, it was simply impossible to evaluate works such as the serenata for Frederick or a keyboard concerto in G minor whose attribution to Friedemann had been dismissed by previous scholars. Nor could readers get a good idea of what these works are like. For this reason I found it necessary to create my own scores of many unpublished works, some of which I have put online. Some other works can be found in passably accurate editions at the International Music Score Library Project website, and all will eventually appear in the ongoing collected edition.

Nevertheless, in view of the difficulty of accessing this music, I determined to place far more musical examples within the book than is customary. I am grateful that my editors at the University of Rochester Press were able to accommodate me, and even secured a subvention from the American Musicological Society, for which I am grateful, to facilitate publication of what turned out to be a somewhat larger book than they originally bargained for. Of course, such examples create an additional challenge for many readers: lacking recordings of many of these works, how can they evaluate what they read about them or adequately judge what the music sounds like?

My solution to this problem has been to include on my website audio versions of all the music examples in the book. These audio versions are no substitute for recordings of actual performances; they're synthesized versions of the scores, generated automatically by my music notation software. But I hope they will help make the examples more usable for readers.

When I perform my own recitals of Friedemann's music, I am always asked two things: Was he really a drunk (as was alleged), and who was the better composer, he or Emanuel? I don't know the answer to the first question, and I don't think the second can have a simple answer. Friedemann is a more rigorous composer than his younger brother, maintaining three- or four-part imitative counterpoint and intensively developing a few memorable motives throughout many compositions. Emanuel's textures are lighter and his decorative approach to composition, which I've called “composition as variation,” can be more facile. Many of Emanuel's simpler pieces are frankly trivial, something that cannot be said of anything by Friedemann, who never wrote pedagogic pieces, strophic songs, and the like.

I think that Emanuel, at his best, is more imaginative and more capable of moving the listener. But Friedemann is capable of amazing, almost Beethovenian strokes in works like his F-major keyboard concerto (as yet unrecorded and unpublished in a modern edition). Even more extraordinary is the G-minor concerto, which remains almost completely unknown, although in my book I restore it to Friedemann's list of works. Here again one hears pre-echoes of Beethoven, particularly in its alternatingly meditative and rhetorical slow movement. Friedemann's famous flute duets, probably completed in his Berlin years, surpass anything else written for the instrument in the eighteenth century in their florid melodic writing and the density of their two-part counterpoint, not to mention their technical challenges.

Friedemann himself will remain an enigma. Even his personal appearance before his last years is mysterious. A widely reproduced portrait showing a lively figure perhaps forty or so of age actually depicts his pupil Johann Christian Bach of Halle—not to be confused with his brother of the same name. Yet Friedemann's music is invaluable. If his adherence to his father's tradition restricted him to some degree, it is also a continuing reason for interest in his music, which contains a fascinating and always original combination of stylistic elements belonging to both his father's generation and his own. More important, however, is Friedemann's uncompromising commitment to writing music that is at once rigorous and free, enlivened by wit as well as passion, challenging to both listener and performer and never satisfied with being merely pleasing.

We don’t usually run two posts on the same subject over two weeks but couldn’t resist the opportunity to wish this ‘enigmatic Bach’ a happy birthday. In addition to writing The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, David Schulenberg is author of The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach and Music of the Baroque, both now in their second editions. He also has edited several volumes of sonatas and concertos by C. P. E. Bach. He plays clavichord, harpsichord, and fortepiano and is professor and chair of the music department at Wagner College on Staten Island, N.Y.

Happy birthday, Wilhelm Friedemann.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Enigmatic Bach

You might be forgiven for imagining that Wilhelm Friedemann Bach is another invention of “Professor” Peter Schickele. However in a superb new study of the music of the eldest of J S Bach’s composer sons, David Schulenberg argues that we should afford his music more respect. In this extract from the book, we see how Wilhelm Friedemann differed from his more famous brothers:

In 1774, one of the most accomplished living European composers arrived in Berlin, the prosperous capital of the powerful Kingdom of Prussia. The composer’s works included a dozen or so extraordinary keyboard sonatas, a half dozen startlingly original concertos for one or two keyboards and orchestra, and perhaps two dozen or more vocal works for virtuoso soloists and ensemble. The list of compositions is small for a musician of his time and stature, but the surviving works are remarkably original, and we do not know how many have been lost. By any measure, it is a notable oeuvre.

Nevertheless, it was unusual for a musician of his age—he was in his sixties—to be traveling in search of a position, if indeed that was his purpose. By this point in their lives, most German musicians of his abilities had been long ensconced in lifetime court appointments, or, like Johann Sebastian Bach, as municipal employees in a church or school. Why Wilhelm Friedemann, Bach’s oldest and by many accounts most talented son, was seeking a position is just one of the many enigmas that surround this peculiar yet extraordinary figure.

Other questions also loom: Where was he and what was he doing during the decade before his arrival in Berlin? Why did he leave his two previous positions, as organist first in the bustling musical capital Dresden, then in the university town Halle? Why, despite his great gifts, did his career diverge so radically from those of his younger brothers Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, who went on to fame if not fortune as royal court musicians in Berlin and London (and later, in Emanuel’s case, to a prestigious cantorship at Hamburg)? Distinct too was the life of the less well known Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, who spent his entire career working quietly but apparently happily at the minor ducal court of Bückeburg.

No less puzzling than these biographical enigmas are those raised by the music itself. How did this son of Bach, who presumably received more or less the same training as his younger brothers, come to write compositions so very different from theirs? For whom did he write his often extravagantly difficult music? Where and by whom was it heard? How are we to make sense of it today?

Although never completely forgotten, especially in the German cities where he lived, the music of Friedemann Bach was never widely distributed. It remains little performed or published by comparison with that of Emanuel and Christian, and writings devoted to it have been few and far between. Hence, even for those that know something of him—flutists and violists fascinated by his challenging and rare duets for their instruments, adventurous keyboard players seeking things to complement the better-known sonatas and fantasias of Emanuel Bach—Friedemann has been something of a footnote in music history.

Yet 300 years after his birth, there are good reasons for taking a closer look at his music. Recent years have seen renewed interest among performers as well as musicologists in the music of his brothers Emanuel and Christian, and more generally in works of the so-called galant age. Musically speaking, this is the period that lies between the Baroque and the Classical; in terms of social history it corresponds to the last decades of monarchial absolutism, preceding the French Revolution. This was the period during which the foundations were laid for the European musical structures and institutions of the nineteenth century, many of which—the star performer, the composer as popular icon, the public concert hall—are still with us. Friedemann played at least a minor role in creating that world, not only as (perhaps) an early touring virtuoso but also as teacher of Sara Levy, great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn and an important figure in her own right in Berlin concert life of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Still, had Friedemann not been born into the most famous musical family in European history, he probably would be remembered merely as one of many honorable but obscure musicians from a particularly busy period of music history. Like his younger contemporaries Johann Friedrich Kleinknecht and Johann Gottfried Müthel, he would be known for a few unusual compositions—in their cases, a couple of extraordinary flute sonatas and several astonishing keyboard sonatas and concertos—that command respect but perhaps not a great deal of affection, if only because they are so difficult to perform and to interpret.

Problematic, too, would be the seemingly narrow character of his output, which, although encompassing most of the familiar eighteenth-century genres, centers on music for keyboard. Stylistically, Friedemann’s best-known works seem limited to what is known today as the empfindsamer style. The German term, translatable as “sensitive” or “hyperexpressive,” implies a rhapsodic, proto-Romantic manner now associated especially with his brother Emanuel Bach. In fact, Friedemann’s music shows greater range than has just been suggested. But it is indeed less diverse than that of other major composers of his time, either because he actually wrote less or because less has survived.

Therein lies another enigma: Was Friedemann truly reluctant to write his music down, preferring to improvise at the harpsichord or organ, as was already reported by his contemporaries? Or was he such a perfectionist that he allowed only a small number of highly refined, carefully worked-over compositions to leave his studio? At a time when social conditions for musicians (and audiences) were changing significantly, did he fail to understand the need to produce more popular types of music—and more of it—if he was to attain the good repute and material well-being enjoyed by both his father and his younger brothers, who better recognized the need to adapt?

The Music of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach by David Schulenberg has just been published by the University of Rochester Press, and is available now from your favourite bookseller. A piece from the author and a further extract will follow over the coming weeks.

Monday, 29 November 2010

‘A locked door of which she had thrown away the key’

In 2007, we published the highly acclaimed Imogen Holst: a Life in Music, the first full-length treatment of the life and music of one of the most fascinating and influential English musicians of the twentieth century. The book was intended as a celebration both of its subject’s centenary, and of the eightieth birthday of Rosamund Strode, Imo’s great friend and her successor as Benjamin Britten’s music assistant in Aldeburgh. Three years later the discovery of much new material has prompted the issue of a new revised edition that is able to explore more fully the creative and emotional development of this much-loved character, who for all her friendliness and charm, would in her later years dismiss talk of her past in a manner that reminded Rosamund of ‘a locked door of which she had thrown away the key’. What we now know is that the key was never thrown away, only hidden, and that, moreover, its owner was far from clear in her own mind about whether or not she really wanted somebody to find it and unlock the door. Christopher Grogan explains:

The newly discovered materials came to light in the aftermath of the decision by the Holst Foundation in 2008 to gift Imo’s remaining archive to its sister organisation in Aldeburgh, the Britten-Pears Foundation. What followed was a thorough sorting through wardrobes, boxes under beds, cupboards and filing cabinets to reveal a goldmine of documentation – unsorted and uncatalogued – relating to Imo’s life and covering all periods of her career. The discoveries included correspondence, travel journals and diaries and a wide range of ephemera; more intimately there were also examples of Imo’s early enthusiasm as an artist, two books of poetry written during her teens, and a wallet of nude photographs of herself, taken in 1931.

In her own treatment of these papers, Imo reveals herself as profoundly ambivalent about the possibility of any future interest in her life and career. Although to friends such as Rosamund (who knew her better than anybody) she repelled questions about her past, she kept all the materials that would one day provide a biographer with the route into her intimate thoughts and feelings. Towards the end of her life she went a step further and wrote out entries from her old engagement diaries into a series of exercise books, thereby mapping the days of her life in a way that suggests that she was thinking about either writing her own autobiography, or preparing the ground for a later biography. Most illuminatingly she wrote on the cover of one travel journal that it should be thrown away as being too old to be of any use. Significantly, however, she didn’t perform the act herself (which would have taken less time than writing the note on the cover), thereby dangling the journal in front of posterity and inviting those who were to come after to make the final decision about its worth. It is not surprising that this particular journal – covering the winter of 1928-9 – should record one of the happiest times of her life, when she enjoyed an Alpine holiday with the man she was then profoundly in love with, Miles Tomalin, a holiday that prompted her to write ‘Return’, one of a sequence of heartfelt love poems that light up Imo’s inner emotional journey through her late teens and early twenties:

After those days and nights of restless joy & agony,
Of vague desires, & uncertain hopes,
It is like drifting into a dreamless sleep,
A calm & deep peace, a long quietness,
To have your arms about me once again,
To feel your dear, familiar limbs pressed close
To mine: - your head lying on my breast.
To stroke your hair, & look into your eyes.
To laugh – so safe, & so secure at last.

The Imo that emerged from these newly discovered materials, and whose story is explored in the revised text, is a more complex, troubled and ultimately sympathetic figure than it was possible to present in the first edition. Raised by a loving but emotionally stilted (and frequently absent) father and a disinterested mother, she found the forging of close emotional connections painfully difficult, often falling hopelessly in love during her early years but never letting on, pouring out her desires and frustrations into her poetry instead. In Miles Tomalin she found a partner who allowed her to recreate her relationship with her father; the closer the two became the less able they were to express their feelings (both resorting once again to poetry to do this) and the relationship eventually foundered on their mutual inability to commit themselves emotionally. In the years that followed, Imo gave herself into relationships that were more physically intense but left her emotionally untouched, before the death of her father sent her spiralling into feelings of guilt and shame, ostensibly because she hadn’t offered to help him more in his professional life, but in reality because she had never been able to express or share the depth of her love for him.

Thus it was that she chose to dedicate her life to his memory and began to shut herself off from her own emotional fulfilment. On a visit to Santa Barbara in 1936, recorded in a diary not available when the first edition came out, she tearfully weighed up her options before coming to a final decision:

I decided that this was obviously the place to live, and that the sensible thing to do would be to earn a lot of money writing music for the films and then retire to Santa Barbara with a small house, a large garden, a select library and a lover. (The last being essential in such a climate.) After ten minutes reflection, however, came to the conclusion that Primrose Hill and celibacy would be more satisfying for any length of time … I was in the depths of gloom by the time E. [her uncle Ernest Cossart] rescued me with the mention of food.

This decision was to inform Imo’s creative journey over the next half-century, laying the foundations on which she was to build her achievements, but also affecting profoundly her approach to relationships, appearance and lifestyle. Moreover it puts into context the shattering emotional impact of her falling in love with Britten, fifteen years after her Santa Barbara decision and at a time when she believed she had put such things behind her. With Imo’s early life and emotional journey now so much better understood, her infatuation with the composer no longer comes out of the blue, but can be understood as a complex reliving of her teenage crushes, repeating the dynamic of her relationships with both her father and Miles Tomalin. In the wake of all this turbulence, it now seems much less surprising that this most self-effacing of creative musicians should finally decide to dedicate her whole existence to opening out the genius of Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten, whilst locking away her own past and hiding the key.

The revised and updated edition of Imogen Holst: A Life in Music by Christopher Grogan is available now in paperback.

Friday, 19 November 2010

When Leon Met James

Harvard Square — a loosely defined ten- to twelve-block area in the heart of Cambridge, Massachusetts, articulated by a maze of streets and characterized by the interpenetration of university and commercial interests—is full of life, crowded, stimulating, and noisy. Cars, taxis, buses, and a subway station service a constant and remarkably diverse flow of humanity. Students and professors represent only a small fraction of this international, polyglot urban population. Musicians, jugglers, glass harmonica players, and political activists vie for prime sidewalk locations, while youth in punk attire add color. And yet, immediately adjacent to the square, there are a few quiet, narrow, one-way streets lined with buildings from the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries. For four decades Leon Kirchner made his home in one of these idyllic havens, at 8 Hilliard Street.

On August 12, 2003, I visited him there to continue the series of interviews that I had been conducting over the previous two years. Even at eighty-four, Kirchner’s erect and imposing six-foot-one inch frame had lost very little altitude to the ravages of time. Admittedly, his movements were slow, and he carefully settled into the low sofa across from me, his lanky legs stretched out, almost bridging the distance between us. He had just returned two days earlier from a trip to New York City, and—totally without preamble—he launched immediately into a report.

“We were at a cocktail party and met scientists from Cold Spring Harbor where McClintock, the Nobel Prize winner, had worked. They invited us out to their laboratory. But I was nervous about going, because Watson was going to be there. After what had happened years ago, I didn’t want to encounter him.”

Assuming that I knew something about Cold Spring Harbor, McClintock, and Watson (which I did not) he apparently was not going to offer further explanation. The mysterious Watson intrigued me most, so naturally I probed: “Who was Watson, and what had happened?” It turned out that he was James Watson, a distinguished molecular biologist and former Harvard professor. Kirchner had first met him under unusual circumstances almost forty years earlier.

At that time, because of Kirchner’s reputation for “being from Hollywood,” he was invited by Paul Doty of the Harvard Chemistry Department to attend a reception, ten days hence, for the Greek actress Melina Mercouri. In addition to appearing in Never on Sunday and many other films, she later served, from 1981 to 1989, as the flamboyant and controversial Greek minister of culture.

Although Kirchner had only recently assumed his Harvard post, the University of Chicago was courting him, and just prior to this reception he made a trip there to explore their offer of a university professorship. In Chicago he stayed with Saul Bellow and was wined and dined by university officials. One of the conditions that Kirchner imposed on his acceptance of the position was the guarantee that he could bring in whomever he wished to study composition, even if his choice fell on a candidate whose résumé did not fit the usual standards.

Kirchner discussed this topic at length with George Beadle, the president of the university, emphasizing his conviction that sometimes the most talented and brilliant individuals simply do not conform to traditional expectations in regard to degree acquisition as well as other professional credentials and social skills. Beadle, a distinguished geneticist and Nobel Prize winner, readily agreed with him and related his own experience with just such a case, a highly gifted but problematic scientist named James Watson whom he had supported, against strong opposition from his colleagues, years earlier at the California Institute of Technology. (At this point Kirchner digressed into an explanation of why he eventually turned down the Chicago offer: because of “its location in the middle of the country, the harsh climate, and the distasteful experience of seeing thousands of white fish dying in Lake Michigan during his visit.”)

A few days later, back in Cambridge, Kirchner went to the reception for Mercouri. While most of the guests were hovering around the fascinating actress/ politician, he fell into a pleasant conversation with a faculty member with whom he was not acquainted. Their discussion focused on the topic of extraordinarily talented individuals who sometimes just do not fit in. This of course led to Kirchner’s recent trip to Chicago, and he began to recount his meeting with George Beadle and their conversation about a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, who, in spite his of great intellectual gifts, had experienced some personal and even academic difficulties. Before Kirchner got very far, the unknown man interrupted him: “I think I should tell you that my name is James Watson.” Kirchner had been so embarrassed that he avoided Watson for years on the Harvard campus.

Returning finally to his trip to New York City the previous week, Kirchner said that his friends had made a call to Cold Spring Harbor, which I learned was a research facility on Long Island, and had determined that Watson remembered Kirchner well and would be delighted to have him visit. The trip was a wonderful experience. The physical beauty of the location was beyond compare, and Kirchner had been fascinated by the laboratory’s biochemical research on brain functions, which he described in vivid detail. At one point Watson had expressed doubt that concert pianists, who by necessity have to practice so many hours a day in order to master the technical demands of their instrument, could be broadly educated intellectuals. Naturally, Kirchner took umbrage and suggested that this misconception would be cleared up if he could meet two outstanding pianists, with multifaceted academic credentials, who had recently been championing Kirchner’s music: Jeremy Denk and Jonathan Biss. It turned out that the laboratory ran its own small concert series each year, and Kirchner recommended that these young artists be engaged.

I have related this encounter in such detail because it provides a rich and characteristic entry into several aspects of Kirchner’s persona: his love of storytelling, his interest in science, his wonderful sense of humor, and his outgoing sociability. He delighted in relating personal anecdotes, and his colorful career provided a rich reservoir of material. Moreover, he was a brilliant raconteur, with an astounding memory for details of past conversations and events, and, when needed, the talent to mimic the accents and mannerisms of his protagonists.

With him, however, one anecdote rarely came alone. His conversation was governed by an active stream of consciousness in which associations constantly triggered new ideas and memories. An encounter with Kirchner was always an adventure— stimulating, challenging, and surprising. Sometimes, as in the story described above, the episodes fit neatly inside each other like a Russian nested doll, but one often had to ask for clarification or additional information in order to follow his fleet and fertile chain of thought. It was always worth the effort.

Kirchner’s keen sense of humor always served him especially well in his roles as teacher and conductor. He could be very entertaining and was not above laughter at his own expense. One of his favorite stories concerned an experience at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont where he had performed as pianist in his Sonata Concertante with violinist Alexander Schneider at the beginning of a concert. During the intermission, the violinist Jaime Laredo, who was in the audience, overheard a conversation between two elderly women seated next to him. One asked if the pianist, Kirchner, had indeed composed “that work.” Her friend assured her that he had. “Then,” she pursued, “did all of those notes come out of his head?” “Well, yes, they did,” the friend replied, to which the other retorted, “it must have felt awfully good to get rid of them!”

This extract comes from the opening chapter of Robert Riggs’ new biography, Leon Kirchner: Composer, Performer, and Teacher. Readers of this blog may buy this book at 40% discount until the end of November (shipping extra: US $5.95 UK £3.00 Europe £6.50). Simply visit the book’s page on our website and follow the order instructions, quoting reference number $10358 in the US and Canada and =10307 elsewhere. Do hurry, this offer can only run until 30 November 2010.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Once upon a time in Vienna

Marc Moskovitz’s superbly readable biography, Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony, has already attracted some enthusiastic reviews. Zemlinsky’s Zelig-like progress through the fin-de-siècle Viennese musical world has obscured his own achievement. In this excerpt, we witness the composer working with another figure who had to wait for the fame he so richly deserved, Gustav Mahler:

At the start of the twentieth century Zemlinsky experienced one of the greatest triumphs he would ever receive at the hands of his fellow Viennese. When Gustav Mahler led the premiere of Zemlinsky’s newest opera, Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) on January 22, 1900, Zemlinsky was forced to acknowledge the ovation — including the war-whoops from the younger members of the audience — at the conclusion of each act. Both thrilled and embarrassed, Zemlinsky bowed awkwardly from the Hofoper stage. Such accolades had been commonly accorded to composers like Johann Strauss jr. or Franz Lehár, darlings of Vienna’s operetta world, or even occasionally to Johannes Brahms, particularly toward the end of his life, but ovations of this nature were something Zemlinsky had only experienced once before, at the premiere of Sarema. Coming off that opera’s success, it appeared Zemlinsky had found his calling.

Brahms’s death three years earlier had left Zemlinsky without vital support in the musical establishment, but Mahler quickly moved to fill the vacuum. Following the successful Munich debut of Sarema, Mahler, who was looking at a Hofoper diet comprising Mozart and Wagner, along with occasional productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Thomas’s Mignon and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, approached Zemlinsky about bringing Sarema back to Vienna. While doubtless flattered at the prospects of having a work premiered under such auspicious circumstances, it appears that Zemlinsky sought to convince Mahler that he was capable of much better. Keenly aware of the success Engelbert Humperdink, Karl Goldmark and Hans Pfitzner had had with fairy tale operas, Zemlinsky too wished to try his hand at the genre and indeed had already sketched out some ideas. Mahler gave his consent, and in August of 1897 Zemlinsky set to work in earnest.

Zemlinsky turned to Holger Drachmann’s Der var engang, a grand five-act national drama that had been played in Vienna in 1894. Drachmann’s fairy tale pivots around a Princess for whom no courtier is good enough and a Prince who is determined to win her love. Tricked into marrying a gypsy (the Prince in disguise), the once haughty Princess is reduced to living in a forest hut and selling pots in the marketplace. Though initially contemptuousness of her new life, she gradually re-evaluates her world and her desires and develops a genuine affection for her husband and their simple life together. The fidelity of the former Princess is soon put to the test, but her love for the gypsy remains steadfast, even in the most tempting of circumstances. By the story’s close, the Princess confesses to having found a love greater than even a Prince could provide. Her transformation complete, the gypsy-prince finally unveils his true, aristocratic identity.

At the end of June of 1898, Zemlinsky submitted an early draft of Es war einmal’s piano score to Mahler, but Mahler’s initial impression was far from encouraging. There was no question that the younger man possessed a formidable talent and technique. Zemlinsky’s characters possessed distinct musical profiles, and his language was efficient and refined, with rhythmic and melodic vitality that never overpowered the voice. It was the work’s overly derivative nature that troubled Mahler. Some degree of outside influence could be expected, since building on the ideas of others was a natural part of the learning process and Zemlinsky had not yet turned thirty. Nevertheless, the manuscript Zemlinsky presented to Mahler was “so full of resemblances and plagiarisms” that its composer “must have a very bad memory to have failed to avoid them”.

Mahler had put his finger on a critical issue : Zemlinsky had learned all that can be taught and had a complete grasp of the elements associated with orchestral and vocal writing. What he had yet to find was the one thing nobody could give him : a distinctive sound, a sonic fingerprint, the unexpected turn of a phrase that says “Schubert”, or the unique orchestration that renders Mendelssohn or Shostakovich or Copland immediately recognizable. Zemlinsky would, of course, find his personal idiom, a voice distinctly his own, but that ownership was still years away. In the meantime he continued to rely heavily — far too heavily, Mahler thought — on the music of others to help lead the way. The critics would concur.

To his credit, Mahler was willing to have his misgivings allayed. Zemlinsky took Mahler up on his offer and played the opera through for him at the piano. Whether because of the conviction of Zemlinsky’s own interpretation, the realization that the work did indeed have potential, or the reaffirmation of Zemlinsky’s undeniable talent, the music director agreed to accept Es war einmal for performance. But the offer came with a caveat : the score would have to undergo significant modifications. For Zemlinsky, Mahler’s proposal held two benefits : first, Mahler’s experience with the demands of the theater would help transform Zemlinsky’s efforts into an opera worthy of being offered up to Hofoper audiences and critics who had come to expect productions of the highest caliber ; second, the project would again place Zemlinsky directly under the wing of one of Vienna’s most influential and powerful musicians. Zemlinsky didn’t have to think twice about the offer.

Mahler’s own knowledge of the theater stemmed more from his dedication to the operas of others than to his own stage works. his only personal operatic attempts had occurred much earlier, and he had long since given up on the idea of composing opera. Years in the theater had taught him what was needed to bring a story — even a fairy tale — to life, and this was precisely the information and experience for which Zemlinsky thirsted. Under Mahler’s direction, the entire opera — music and text — was overhauled, resulting in significant cuts, modifications and rewrites. Mahler’s understanding of stagecraft — the complexities of which Zemlinsky was only beginning to learn — also resulted in a number of practical suggestions and revisions, such as lengthening the Interlude to Act I, which allowed greater time for a costume and scene change. In December of 1899, the full score was complete and the following month the curtain rose on Es war einmal for the first time.

Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony by Marc Moskovitz is available from your favourite bookseller or, in case of difficulty, direct from Boydell and Brewer in the US or the UK.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Past and the Future: Britten's War Requiem

The fifth volume of Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten, edited by Philip Reed and Mervyn Cooke, will be published soon. In this post, Reed examines one of Britten's most controversial and impressive works, the War Requiem:

The most public and indisputably most popular of Britten’s works from the period covered by volume 5 of Letters from a Life is War Requiem, commissioned by the Coventry Cathedral Festival in October 1958 to mark the consecration of Basil Spence’s uncompromisingly modern building, which sought to be a symbol of peace and reconciliation in a city that had been flattened (including the destruction of the ancient cathedral) by German bombers in the Second World War. Spence’s building incorporated significant works from leading artists of the day, including John Piper, Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland. The arts festival celebrating the new cathedral’s consecration in 1962 was inspired to emulate the building’s artistic environment by commissioning new music from some of the most distinguished British composers of the day. Tippett and Bliss, as well as Brian Easdale, a colleague from Britten’s pre-war days at the Group Theatre, had new works performed at Coventry.

The Festival gave Britten a free hand in his choice of the genre of work, and he took the opportunity to fulfil a long-term general scheme to write a major choral work that had been at the back of his mind since the late 1940s. Mea culpa, his planned oratorio with Ronald Duncan from 1945 in protest at the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the projected ‘Gandhi Requiem’ of 1948, both fed into the ideas behind War Requiem. So, too, must Britten’s plan, realistically aborted owing to lack of time, to write a choral-and-orchestral Mass setting for Lord Harewood’s Leeds Centenary Festival in 1958. Of greater personal significance for Britten, however, was the platform the Coventry commission gave him to make a public statement about his strongly held pacifist beliefs. In War Requiem, Britten could speak out in opposition to war, violence and inhumanity.

It seems likely that Nocturne, the orchestral song-cycle Britten wrote for the 1958 Leeds Festival instead of the Mass setting Harewood had originally hoped for, was the source of the idea for Britten’s incorporating the sequence of Wilfred Owen settings into War Requiem. Among its typically Brittenesque anthology of poetry on the theme of sleep and dreams, Nocturne included a setting of Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Kind Ghosts’. The song-cycle was written quickly in the late summer of 1958, but Britten was considering the shape and content of the piece earlier in the year, when he read widely in his search for possible poems to set. Interestingly, many of the texts he selected for inclusion in the BBC Radio programme Personal Choice broadcast in July 1958 reflect his current compositional preoccupations. ‘The Kind Ghosts’ was not chosen for the BBC programme, but another of Owen’s poems was – ‘Strange Meeting’, in which dead soldiers from opposing sides in the conflict confront each other and are reconciled. A setting of lines from this poem forms the final, cathartic duet for the male soloists in War Requiem. Owen’s poetry therefore was very much in Britten’s mind before the letter came in October 1958 inviting him to write a piece for Coventry Cathedral.

Unless directly collaborating with a librettist such as William Plomer, Britten is generally circumspect about his current projects in his letters. Readers looking for revelations about War Requiem will be disappointed: apart from arrangements concerning the commissioning of the work, and the inevitable consultations over the engagement of singers and the conductor for its premiere, there is little to be read about the piece other than an occasional progress report. Britten’s letter of 16 February 1961 to the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in which he invites him, ‘with great temerity’, to sing in the premiere of War Requiem, summarizes his own view of the work at a point only a few weeks before he began work on the composition draft:

I am writing what I think will be one of my most important works. It is a full-scale Requiem Mass for chorus and orchestra (in memory of those of all nations who died in the last war), and I am interspersing the Latin text with many poems of a great English poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in the First World War. These magnificent poems, full of the hate of destruction, are a kind of commentary on the Mass; they are, of course, in English. These poems will be set for tenor and baritone, with an accompaniment of chamber orchestra, placed in the middle of the other forces. They will need singing with the utmost beauty, intensity and sincerity.

Otherwise, Britten’s decision to incorporate Owen’s poetry, its selection and its mapping into the timeless Latin of the Mass for the Dead, where it forms an integrated Owen song-cycle, is seldom mentioned in the correspondence beyond mere reporting of the fact.

Much of the impact of the anti-war message of War Requiem lay in Britten’s strategic placing of his Owen settings in relation to the Latin Mass, where the horrors of the poet’s experience in the trenches are used to undermine the ritual mourning of church and state. The immediacy of the musical expression of the work – for example, its obvious allusions to the Requiem of Verdi – touched the wider public in a way that no work by Britten had previously, with the possible exception of Peter Grimes in 1945. Against the background of contemporary anxieties about the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, the expansion of hostilities in the Vietnam War, and the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1964, Britten’s lament for the dead of two world wars and the consequences of war could not have been more timely, and the socio-political climate of the early 1960s undoubtedly made its own contribution to War Requiem’s international success. Such unprecedented acclaim for the work was unexpected by Britten, who seems to have been genuinely taken aback by its popularity.

In the immediate aftermath of the premiere, which, musically, was beset by problems concerning the cathedral’s acoustics and the unavailability of the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (she was refused permission by the Soviet authorities), Britten remains modest in his response to the tidal wave of congratulatory letters and telegrams: ‘I am, at the moment, only too aware of where it falls short of the idea, which is so close to my heart’, he writes to Plomer on 5 June 1962 in response to a warm letter from the writer; and to others the composer generally deflects comments about the music, preferring instead to concentrate on the fact that the message of the work had been understood – ‘the main point really’, as he told the director Basil Coleman.

The exchange of letters between Britten and the sculptor Barbara Hepworth about War Requiem is one of the most interesting in volume 5, touching not only on the work’s message but also the music’s emotional power. Hepworth, whose work Britten admired but whom he did not know well personally, somehow gets to the heart of the matter.

After listening to the BBC Third Programme live radio broadcast of the premiere on 30 May 1962, Hepworth wrote immediately to the composer:

I was profoundly moved this evening listening to the War Requiem. I felt it to be a truly magnificent work, and of tremendous importance to all of us both intellectually and emotionally. The visionary quality of the balance between the finest of what is past and the understanding of the new orientation towards the future, seemed to me sublime [. . .] As a sculptor I am deeply grateful for the experience of listening to this great work, with all its strange sweeps of sound and texture, and its absolute strength and purity of conception. [Quoted in Sophie Bowness, ‘“Rhythms of the Stones”: Hepworth and Music’, in Chris Stephens (ed.), Barbara Hepworth Centenary (London: Tate Publishing, 2004), p. 27.]

Britten’s response (4 June 1962) – a photocopy of the letter was given to the Britten–Pears Library by Sir Alan Bowness, Hepworth’s son-in-law – reveals how pleased he was by her understanding of this balance between past tradition and fresh endeavour; his appreciation of her understanding of his aims was no doubt enhanced for him by the fact that she was a fellow creator, someone with whom he could share, despite their different disciplines, common cause:

My dear Barbara Hepworth,
I did appreciate your writing about my War Requiem, & the things you said. A tribute from an artist I admire, as much as I admire you, moves me greatly. I have been treasuring the idea of this work for ages, & endeavoring to find the language to express it; just this balance between the old & the new. But I am surprised that you think it only possible in music at this moment – I feel most of the musical world is hopelessly bogged down in just exploring new techniques, with a very few exceptions; the visual world seems much more relaxed. But this is too long a subject – & I wanted you to know quickly, how touched & grateful I am for your letter.
Greetings from Peter [Pears] too –
Ben Britten

Whatever the long-term critical assessment of War Requiem – and that has vacillated fairly widely during the fifty years since its premiere – its impact in the years immediately following its premiere in 1962 was considerable, with performances springing up throughout Europe and America in double quick time. Extracts from the piece were even performed in March 1964 by students from the Leningrad Conservatory (using pirated scores), with Britten in the audience; and the recording made in January 1963 under the composer’s direction and featuring the three soloists for whom the work was intended –Vishnevskaya, Pears and Fischer-Dieskau – was an instant best-seller.

Fifty years on from its premiere, War Requiem has firmly established itself as a cornerstone of the twentieth-century repertoire, and is regularly performed in circumstances that its composer would probably find surprising. For him, it remained a special work, in which he had articulated his own profoundly held beliefs. As co-editor Mervyn Cooke observed at the conclusion of his survey of the work’s critical reception in his handbook to War Requiem, ‘It is one of the richest ironies of the War Requiem’s performance history that a work embodying fundamentally anti-establishment sentiments, attacking both the inhumanity of war and the complacency of conventional religion, should have become one of the most enduring bastions of the British musical establishment.’ It is an irony, one suspects, that would not have been lost on its composer.

Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters of Benjamin Britten will be available soon from all good booksellers.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

‘More perfect than any singer I have heard.’

Irving Godt was already working on his book about Marianna Martines when he met John Rice in the late 1990s. When Godt died towards the end of 2006, his daughter asked Rice to revise the typescript for publication by the University of Rochester Press. As he says in the Editor’s Note to the book, “I welcomed this opportunity to contribute to an important project and to the memories of a talented and accomplished composer and a knowledgeable and tenacious scholar.’

Here is an edited extract from the Introduction which demonstrates both her reputation among her contemporaries and the sort of barriers that existed for female artists of the time:

The music historian Charles Burney spent several weeks in Vienna in 1772. One of his most cherished ambitions was to meet the court poet Pietro Metastasio, whose librettos, set to music hundreds of times, had helped to shape the music of his age. But once in the presence of the great dramatist, Burney found his attention distracted by the entrance of a young woman, “who was received by the whole company with great respect. She was well dressed, and had a very elegant appearance.” This was Marianna Martines, whose family had lived with Metastasio for about forty years and whose education he had supervised. She had developed quickly into a fine singer, keyboard player, and composer, and was now, at the age of twenty-eight, at the height of her creative powers.

Martines’s singing left Burney at a loss for words:

To say that her voice was naturally well-toned and sweet, that she had an excellent shake, a perfect intonation, a facility of executing the most rapid and difficult passages, and a touching expression, would be to say no more than I have already said, and with truth, of others; but here I want words that would still encrease the significance and energy of these expressions. The Italian augmentatives would, perhaps, gratify my wish, if I were writing in that language; but as that is not the case, let me only add, that in the portamento, and divisions of tones and semi-tones into infinitely minute parts, and yet always stopping upon the exact fundamental, Signora Martinetz was more perfect than any singer I had ever heard: her cadences too, of this kind, were very learned, and truly pathetic and pleasing.

After these two songs, she played a very difficult lesson [i.e., sonata], of her own composition, on the harpsichord, with great rapidity and precision. She has composed a Miserere, in four parts, with several psalms, in eight parts, and is a most excellent contrapuntist.

The woman who charmed Burney so completely, impressing him as both a performer and a composer, was one of the most accomplished and highly honoured female musicians of her century. Her first music teacher was the young Joseph Haydn. Vienna knew her as a gifted aristocratic singer and keyboard player who performed for the pleasure of the Empress Maria Theresa. The great composer Johann Adolf Hasse praised her singing, keyboard playing, and composition. The regular private concerts she held in her home attracted the presence and the participation of some of Vienna’s leading musicians; Mozart enjoyed playing keyboard duets with her. She composed prolifically and in a wide variety of genres, vocal and instrumental, writing church music, oratorios, Italian arias, sonatas, and concertos. Those who study, perform, and listen to her music today will understand easily why it captivated Burney.

Yet a few decades after her death a critical tradition hostile to the music of Martines and to women composers in general began to influence opinion. The prolific Viennese novelist Caroline Pichler was herself an accomplished musician in her youth, having studied with Mozart. She took part in private musical events given by her father in the 1790s, when Martines presided over one of Vienna’s most celebrated musical salons. (Thus she had reason to think of Martines as a rival.)

In memoirs published in 1844, a year after her death, Pichler gave notice to two female composers: the blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis and Martines. Pichler was ten years younger than Paradis, twenty-five years younger than Martines. Her musical tastes were clearly those of a generation different from Marianna’s; but she expressed no great fondness for the music of Paradis either: “I found neither her compositions nor those of Fräulein Martinez (the only works by female composers that were known to me) to be of much interest.” This statement led Pichler to a short disquisition on female composers:

It is an altogether strange observation . . . that not a single woman has yet succeeded in distinguishing herself as a creative musician. There are successful women painters and poets, and if not a single woman in any art or science has ever achieved as much as men have, they have nevertheless made significant strides forward. But not in music. And yet one would think that this art, which demands the least preliminary study and more feeling and imagination than the other arts, would be the proper medium in which the female spirit might express itself.

She went on to disparage not only Marianna but the whole sisterhood of women composers, beginning with a rhetorically useful concession that Paradis and Martines wrote some good music:

Both produced fine things, but not at the highest—indeed not even at the middle level, while women in painting and poetry, even if they have produced nothing comparable to the works of the leading masters in these crafts, have brought forth valuable things without any allowance for their sex. But should not one expect that music, resting as it does on instinct, on inner impulses, on feeling, and on imagination, would be better adapted to the female character than the fields of painting and poetry, in which experience, clear concepts, technical skill, etc., are required? Yet it is not necessarily so, because up to now we have seen a Sirani, a Rosalbe, an Angelica Kaufmann, a Lebrun, etc.—but not even a somewhat significant woman composer.

Marianna Martines: A Woman Composer in the Vienna of Mozart and Haydn by Irving Godt, edited by John A Rice, is now available from the University of Rochester Press and all good booksellers.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Father and Son

Svetlana Belsky’s translation of Grigory Kogan’s classic study, Busoni as Pianist, has already been featured on this blog. However, to fill the two week gap as we ply our trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair (hall 8, stand C930 for anyone planning a visit), we thought you might enjoy the following excerpt from the book which describes Busoni père’s attempts to make a little Mozart out of his son. Anyone interested in musical and cultural history should read Belsky’s Preface to the book (see Google Book Search for example), which includes a chilling and evocative account of artistic life - and death - under Stalin.

In the north of Italy, in Tuscany, near Florence lies a little town called Empoli. There, on April 1, 1866, the future great pianist was born. He was the only son of the Italian clarinetist Ferdinando Busoni and the pianist Anna Weiss, who was Italian on her mother’s side and German on her father’s. The boy’s parents concertized and led a wandering life, which the child, too, was obliged to share.

Eleven months after birth he was taken away from his native town, and, travelling from place to place, in 1869, found himself in Paris where the family planned to settle. However, the Franco-Prussian War that began in 1870 forced Busoni’s parents to abandon this intention. The boy’s father set off on an extended concert tour of Italy, while Ferruccio and his mother settled in Trieste in the home of his grandfather, Giuseppe Weiss.

In Trieste—an Italian city, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire— Busoni’s musical education began. His abilities, as is usual among great musicians, manifested themselves early. By four years of age he already played the piano by ear. The first lessons of piano and musicianship were given by his mother, and soon the pupil could perform small four-hand pieces of Diabelli with his teacher.

Busoni’s mother was a good pianist, quite successful on the stage (eight days before her son’s birth she performed in Rome in the presence of Liszt); her son remembered in her playing a faultless technique, great facility, and a certain “salon” approach “in the spirit of Thalberg’s art.” In 1872, after an absence of two years, suddenly his father came back, and the boy’s life underwent great changes.

Busoni’s father was a colorful, original personality. Far from lacking in talent, but deficient in general education and professionalism, he continually nurtured grand plans, which usually greatly exceeded his rather modest real gifts. He did not wish to play in an orchestra, considering that beneath him, and, quite possibly, could not, for, according to his son, he could not manage rhythm or sight-reading any too well. But solo concerts, which had brought him “small fame,” could not entirely satisfy his ambition, either. In search of the road to success he tried many and various ventures: now attempting to write and publish poetry, then “making” his son’s career, and so on. Ardent and outspoken, unceremonious and despotic, always “temporarily” without a penny to his name, but nevertheless full of unwavering faith in the future, he often evoked ironic smiles in those around him and materially complicated the lives of his family members.

His father’s fantasies left their mark on Busoni’s life from the very start. By his wish, the newborn was given four names: Ferruccio-Dante-Michelangelo-Benvenuto—in the naive belief that the “patronage” of the three great Tuscan artists (Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Benvenuto Cellini) would guarantee the child’s glorious future. Naturally, having reached the age of awareness, Busoni hurriedly discarded the “heavy responsibility” tactlessly laid upon him by his father, rejected the two middle names, and, eventually, also the fourth, leaving himself only the name Ferruccio.

Back with the family, his father immediately commenced furious activity. Having insisted on moving the family away from the home of his father-in-law to a separate apartment, he dismissed his wife from further instruction of the child, and, thoroughly unembarrassed by his incompetence in questions of pianism, undertook the boy’s education himself. These lessons are colorfully described in Busoni’s “autobiographical fragments”:

My father knew little about piano playing, and, in addition, did not have very good rhythm, but he compensated for these faults with absolutely indescribable energy, severity, and pedantry. He could sit by my side for four hours a day, controlling every note and every finger. There could be no indulgence, rest, or slightest inattention on his part. The only pauses were precipitated by explosions of his unusually irascible temperament, which were followed by reproaches, dark prophecies, threats, an occasional box on the ear, and ample tears. Finally, there was repentance, father’s consolation, and assurance that he wishes only the best—and the next day it all began again.

Having put it into his head at all costs to make another Mozart out of his son, Busoni’s father decided that the boy was most likely to reach this goal by following, step by step, the artistic path of the author of Don Giovanni. The latter, of course, studied music from the age of four and performed at six. Busoni’s lessons began at the “correct” time. It only remained to prepare him successfully for a public debut, which took place—alas, with a certain delay in “the plan”—in Trieste, on November 24, 1873: the seven-year-old Busoni took part in his parents’ concert, playing the first movement of Mozart’s C-Major Sonata, the F-Major Sonatina of Clementi, and two pieces from Schumann’s Album for the Young: “Armes Waisenkind” and “Soldatenmarsch.” The little pianist appeared under the dual name Weiss-Busoni—the father’s new idea, in the belief that the combination of two “big names” would create good publicity for the young prodigy.

Readers of this blog may buy this book at 35% discount during the month of October (shipping extra: US $5.95 UK £3.00 Europe £6.50). Simply visit the book’s page on our website and follow the order instructions, quoting reference number $10296 in the US and Canada and 10249 elsewhere. Do hurry, this offer can only run for the month of October 2010.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

“Haydn’s Ribbits and Beethoven’s Cheep-Cheeps”

In a previous post we shared Daniel Albright’s intriguing preface to his recent book Music Speaks: On the Language of Opera, Dance, and Song. Below we reprint some typical passages from several of the book’s chapters. Perhaps “typical” is not even the best word, considering how playful and inventive his writing and thinking is. As Paul Griffiths (renowned author of The Substance of Things Heard: Writings about Music and The Sea on Fire: Jean Barraqué) noted with regard to Music Speaks: ‘“teasing” -- in the senses of gently mocking, of pulling out, and indeed of titillating -- is . . . [Albright’s] modus operandi.”

For Wittgenstein, music isn’t like speech; instead, speech is a special case of music. Some of the things you say to me I understand in the way I understand Mozart; some of the things in the way I understand Cage; some of the things in the way I understand Britney Spears. But in all cases, speech is a game with sounds, just as music is a game with sounds–neither strictly possesses meaning, or conviction, but meaning and conviction may glide around either....

[If] language is beset by the same problems of jarring and incommensurable, un-unifiable models that beset music, then music and language are in exactly the same uncomfortable situation. Yes, Strauss’s tone poem Till Eulenspiegel lurches wildly from narrative to speech-inflection to exasperating tangles of unconstruables; but a written chronicle of Till’s adventures would behave identically. So we are left in paradox: the more we try to understand music as language, the more strongly it resists that understanding; and the more we try to understand music as the opposite of language, the more sweetly, strongly, plainly it speaks to the ear. We understand the siren’s song only at the moment when we stop trying to understand it. [pages 13-14]
Poets have always been listening. The meanings they seek to convey in their poems often seem to lie half outside the words, in the rush of wind or water, in the thunder, in the cries of birds, as if poets were trying to translate into human language a poetry that pre-exists in the whole body of the world’s sounds. Composers also listen; and when they read poems, they listen both to the music of the words themselves, and to the music on the far side of the poems, the music that the poets themselves were attending to. So–when Haydn sets a passage in The Seasons in which frogs appear, he sets the orchestra a-croaking. The philosopher Schopenhauer greatly deplored this tendency in Haydn, on the grounds that music should strive to align itself with the deep urgencies hidden in the heart of things, and not to imitate external phenomena. But it’s futile to try to argue Haydn out of his ribbits, or Beethoven out of his cheep-cheeps in the song Die Wachtel, The Quail. In a poem about sound, the external sound is an irresistibly potent metaphor for the poem’s meaning. [page 105]
At the beginning of Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto to La Dafne, Ovid himself descends from Elysium to warn the spectators that they’re about to see a play about the dangerousness of love: beware, you might fall in love with a girl only to find her turned into a tree. Immediately after this brief prologue, Apollo kills a dragon with his bow and arrow. The whole protocol of this opening is all wrong by the standards of Greek tragedy: if there is a prologue, it is a god (as in Euripides’ Hippolytus), not a poet; and monsters are killed offstage and enter the play as a form of narrative (also as in the Hippolytus). The early opera writers quite liked combats with monsters: in the third intermedio from La Pellegrina (music by Marenzio), Apollo slays the monster at Delphi. To some extent we might say that opera labored to bring into the theatre what was in the world of the Greeks indecorous—obscene in the root meaning of the term, that is, incapable of being presented onstage. Ovid’s poetry seemed to offer opportunities for sex and violence beyond what was permitted in serious Greek or Roman drama.

In later times, actual Greek tragedy made its way onto the operatic stage, but hesitantly and in much altered form. The most important Greek tragedy, for operatic purposes, was Euripides’s Alcestis, the subject of substantial operas by (among others) Lully, Handel, and Gluck. I suspect that part of the reason for this popularity was (1) the fact that the plot—a harrowing of Hades for a beloved wife—was the closest thing in Greek tragedy to the plot of Orpheus, the gold standard in operatic story lines; (2) the story had a happy ending, unlike that of Orpheus, though with some wrenching and hammering a happy ending for Orpheus was usually contrived (Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo had an unhappy ending according to the published libretto of 1607, but not according to the published score of 1609); and (3) the luxury-uxorious aspect of the tale flattered an increasingly bourgeois taste—here was a G-rated opera fit for the whole family. [pages 122-23]

The great master of the inconsequential ballet was of course Meyerbeer, who thought it a fine thing to provide, in Le prophète (1849), a little relief for the bloodthirsty, war-torn Anabaptists in the form of a delicious ballet in which provisions-sellers on ice-skater, simulated with that newfangled contrivance the roller skate, take a break from their capitalist enterprise by dancing. Wagner considered that a Meyerbeer opera was a series of effects without causes, “a monstrously piebald, historico-romantic, diabolico-religious, fanatico-voluptuous, frivolo-sacred, mysterio-jaunty, sentimento-knavish dramatic hodge-podge.” You might get the impression that Wagner disapproved. But you have only to hear Wagner’s words to understand that Meyerbeer’s time has come: no pithier description of the Postmodern sensibility exists. Rauschenberg’s goat plugged into an automobile tire, Serrano’s Piss Christ, Schnittke’s Dr. Faustus, the whole canon of Damien Hirst–what are these but more recent manifestations of the piebald, diabolico-religious, sacro-frivolous, mysterio-criminal? Maybe the patron saint of our age is Giacomo Meyerbeer. [pages 163-64]

Music Speaks is available from all good booksellers. Read more on Google Book Search.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Lessons of the Masters

As we approach the official publication date of Tully Potter's long-awaited life and times of Adolf Busch, here are two short extracts which demonstrate how Adolf and his brother Fritz were willing to learn from others. First, we join the brothers in Pyrmont:

More progress in broadening and deepening his repertoire was made that summer, when Fritz had a second season as Pyrmont Hofkapellmeister and Adolf again agreed to be his concertmaster. This time there was no chance of reinforcing the moth-eaten orchestra with young, unpaid students; worse, there was little music of good quality for the ‘court musicians’ to play. Chamber music came to the rescue. […] Fritz also arranged a small Schumann Festival, at which Adolf performed the Fantasy and the renowned tenor and reciter Ludwig Wüllner took part with his sister Anna in Manfred: the chorus was provided by visitors to the baths, augmented by the local male-voice choir. After the morning rehearsal, Fritz asked Wüllner for his comments and was told: ‘Young man, you are doubtless gifted but you have not the slightest idea what lies behind the notes of this magnificent work. The spirit, the true beauty of this music is a completely dead letter to you, and I am afraid you will never grasp it, as you are much too conceited’. That afternoon Wüllner gave Fritz a three-hour tutorial in the interpretation of Schumann’s music; and the evening concert was an experience neither of the Busch brothers ever forgot.

Most of the time, the musicians were expected to grind out selections from operettas by men such as Paul Lincke, the particular local favourite. Fortunately the chief director of Simrock, publisher of Brahms and Dvořák, was taking the waters at Pyrmont. When he heard of Fritz’s plight, he sent for the scores and parts of all Dvořák’s available orchestral works and made the young Kapellmeister a present of them. The Busch brothers already liked the Bohemian composer’s music but this chance happening led to a lasting love for it: they played it ad infinitum that summer of 1910, until the regular clientele began to complain and Kurt von Beckerath ordered Fritz to lay Dvořák aside and give the customers their usual fare. Adolf then suggested the ingenious ploy of announcing Lincke’s music on the programmes but playing Dvořák’s. All went well until Lincke, who unbeknown to the brothers had been taking the cure at Pyrmont, presented himself to Fritz and complained that he kept seeing his own name on the programme and hearing the strains of Dvořák. Adolf made a strategic exit, leaving Fritz to pacify the angry composer by suggesting a special series of Lincke evenings in the park, to be conducted by the composer himself with red illuminations; there would also be Lincke pieces in the morning concerts – which Fritz did not conduct. Thus honour was satisfied on both sides and the brothers could go back to their lodgings to play Beethoven and Bach sonatas.

A little over a year later, Adolf Busch found himself playing in New York with the great maestro, Toscanini:

Then came the most demanding test, Busch’s first concert with the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York under Toscanini, at Carnegie Hall on Thursday, 26 November. The programme would seem curious today: Mozart, Symphony No. 29; Bach, A minor Violin Concerto; Franck, ‘Morceau symphonique’ from Rédemption; interval; Beethoven; Violin Concerto; Overture, Der fliegende Holländer. During a run-through of the concertos at the Astor with Giesen at the piano, an amicable argument arose over a detail in the Bach, as Piero Weiss related:

In the last movement there was a grace note that Busch interpreted as a long grace note. Toscanini disagreed and wanted him to play an acciaccatura, not an appoggiatura – short, not long. Years later, Busch came to him and said: ‘Maestro, you were right about that note in the Bach Concerto, because I was just the other day reading Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s treatise on keyboard playing and there he quoted a passage that was exactly the same’. Toscanini said: ‘Mio caro Busch, either you feel it here’ – touching his heart – ‘or you need to read a lot of books’.

It appears that, at the concert, Busch played the disputed note Toscanini’s way. After the conductor had taken his final bow, green, pink and yellow slips of paper rained down from the top gallery, bearing the legend: ‘Long live the great Maestro Arturo Toscanini! Mussolini and his Black Shirts do not represent the spirit of Italy. Viva Arturo Toscanini!’ But Busch had his share of the evening’s ovations and cabled home: ‘Greatest success. Wonderful music-making. Maestro happy with me’. Fritz in Dresden received a similar telegram, signed by Toscanini and Kreisler – one of many string-players present. The programme was repeated on the Friday afternoon; but before then Busch had read some of the best notices of his life.

The two-volume set of Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician by Tully Potter is available from wherever good music books are sold.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Svetlana Belsky's Busoni

The time came, as it inevitably must, in any DMA program, when the Director of Doctoral Studies looks sternly at the class and asks if all are ready to submit their dissertation proposals. The program in question was a performance doctorate; and we had just recently found out exactly how many degree recitals were required for graduation! So the answer all around was a pained “no”. I searched my brain for ideas, none came, but, undaunted (or not much), I appealed to the fount of all wisdom, pianistic and otherwise, my dear teacher, Nina Svetlanova.

The gleam in her eye was more frightening than the Director’s frown. It appeared that she had been waiting for the question – and had the answer. Shortly, I found myself with a well-thumbed tome in my hands, a masterpiece written by her own teacher that badly needed translating into English and I was just the person to do it (having command of Russian and English, a love for the piano and an inability to say no). The book was Busoni by Grigory Kogan (GK’s original one-word title, standing like a marble statue), putting it down once I started reading was impossible, and practicing suffered greatly for the space of those few days. (Little did I know how much future practicing time would suffer, along with teaching, housekeeping and motherhood, in the course of the writing itself!).

That first reading was somewhat of an interactive experience. I was frequently heard muttering to myself about the fabulousness of this idea or another, and occasionally bursting out with an “aha, so this is where that genius fingering from my last lesson came from!” The wheel of time turns inexorably, and, since the publication of the book in January, my own students, presented with some pearl of wisdom, have been known to exclaim – “this is right out of Chapter 11!”

Like most young pianists, I had only a passing acquaintance with the name Ferruccio Busoni. I knew him as a fabled pianist of the Golden Age, and the composer of impossibly difficult works. The name of Grigory Kogan, on the other hand, was very familiar to me. To any pianist, and, indeed, musician, brought up in the Russian-speaking world, he was a legend and a giant. The great Russian and Soviet pianistic tradition would not have existed without Kogan’s teaching, playing and writing. Other great pedagogues wrote works about the “hows” of piano playing, Kogan discussed the “whys”, those psychological aspects of listening, imagining, practicing and performance, without which any pianist, no matter how technically proficient, can never become an artist. Many of Kogan’s iconic works on piano playing unfortunately remain un-translated and unpublished, but I may quote them in my lessons with impunity!

Kogan’s Busoni as Pianist (the translation’s new and more precise title) s the first and only work of its kind – dedicated to painstaking study and discussion of Busoni’s place in the pianistic Pantheon. It is Kogan’s fascinating thesis that, unlike many great pianists whose careers shine bright but change nothing in the prevailing zeitgeist, Busoni’s contribution to the history of piano playing is as revolutionary and game-changing as that of Liszt, Chopin or Anton Rubinstein. Busoni’s esthetic was radically opposite that of the decadent style of Hofman and Leschetizky, in all aspects of technique, sound production, repertoire and even general approach, and served as a sort of counterweight. My very favorite chapter of the book contrasts the recordings of the Liszt-Verdi Rigoletto Paraphrase by Busoni himself and Anna Essipova, Leschetizky’s favorite student and wife; the revelation here is that Essipova’s playing is much more immediately attractive and pleasant, Busoni’s takes time and effort to understand and appreciate, and then becomes irresistible. The school of piano playing that emerged in the years after WWII, especially the Russian, is a wonderful amalgam of the two great movements of the decades before, and was indelibly influenced by Busoni’s art.

Outside of Busoni’s importance as a study of both theory and history of piano playing, the book is fascinating as a product of its time and place. Written (or, at least published) in 1964, during that brief period of relaxation of Soviet government’s iron censorship of every aspect of creative and literary life, the book was still required to include the prescribed amount of genuflection towards the powers that be and the usual socialist-realist cant which any Soviet reader would simply ignore. Because I cannot imagine that any reader not schooled in the art of instinctively skipping, on even the first reading, any paragraphs which include the word “bourgeois” and “Lenin”, will be able to discard those passages written clearly and exclusively for the censor, I felt it was imperative to provide an in-depth explanation of the “life and times” of the book. Lovers of history, or those not well acquainted with the history of the Soviet Union, might enjoy both the products of my own labors, and the little vignette of the time now passed unlamented.

Svetlana Belsky's translation of Grigory Kogan's classic study, Busoni as Pianist, is now available, published by the University of Rochester Press. An excerpt from this beautifully translated work will be published in a later post.