Thursday, 27 May 2010

Remembering Fernande Kaeser

Among the many pleasures of Leo Black’s new book, BBC Music in the Glock Era and After, are his short portraits of some of the artists and performers he knew during his years with the Corporation. Meet Luigi Dallapiccola and Hans Eisler, Janet Baker and Norma Burrowes, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and many others. This post, however, remembers someone that Black describes as ‘one of the great musicians in my life’:

The encomium ‘made in Switzerland’ comes my way but rarely, implying as it does the perfect execution of a Martina Hingis or a Roger Federer. Very early in my BBC time William Glock asked me to look in on the Festival Hall rehearsal of an American conductor who’d written to him, and say what I thought. I arrived while an orchestral work was being rehearsed (even a week later I couldn’t have told you what it was, though I seem to remember that the second half consisted of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony). Things changed drastically for the better when a small, dark-haired young woman walked on, sat down at the keyboard, and conjured up the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The rest of the morning was magic. I’d seldom or never heard piano-playing of such concentrated beauty and communicative power; the passion with which this apparent Swiss mouse delivered the fortissimo version of the chords at the first movement’s recapitulation is with me still. For Fernande Kaeser music was, in the immortal words of another William (Bill Shankly, Manager Liverpool Football Club), “not a matter of life and death but more important than that”.

Here, clearly, was an artist I just had to work with. She went on to continue a reasonable career on both sides of the Atlantic, but in the course of time it became a career teaching rather than performing. I discovered much later, after dropping some dismissive remark about competitions, that in the early 1950s she’d won the top piano prize at the Geneva International, one of the relatively few such contests which really counted, long before the time when you absolutely have to have won somewhere, and preferably somewhere else too. That she’d been in good company emerged even later during a brief acquaintanceship with Jennifer Vyvyan’s son: he dug out a programme that showed Fernande as the year’s successful pianist, alongside two major singers, his mother and the American soprano Teresa Stich-Randall. They’d shared the top vocal prize (which must have been too small to reward suitably two such talents): I still remember hearing about it at the time, and the way in which the name Jennifer Vyvyan immediately became one to watch out for. She was in fact one of the greatest singers Britain has produced, and I regret having worked with her only once, in a programme of French songs. Not being British, the piano-prizewinner didn’t get the same attention here. Fernande was the last pupil of Dinu Lipatti and had in her tenderest years received memorable advice from Clara Haskil; but despite Geneva the top agents weren’t interested, which even then was an inhibitor of really widespread success.

Our BBC collaborations were few and far between, for she spent a lot of her time teaching in the USA, but they always produced something of lasting interest. The pearl among them was a programme with two sets of fairly obscure variations, Bach’s Aria variata alla maniera Italiana and Mozart’s on a theme by Duport. I count that as the most beautiful programme for which I was responsible in my twenty-eight BBC years. Basil Lam summed up her special quality when I played him something she’d recorded, saying “Well, it isn’t fair is it, you give her a better piano than anyone else”. Certainly her ability to find the poetry in any given instrument was phenomenal; it came partly from careful preparation, sometimes involving all the spare studio time available for a couple of days before the show, as well as a pianistic talent of rare quality.

Fernande’s career was never glamorous, which is in part attributable to her own total distaste for the kind of ‘glamour’ that attracts attention regardless of talent, and also, perhaps, to that responsible attitude to preparation. On her one and only visit to our house, near the end of her life, she told of playing chamber music with a group. It was a pleasant enough evening, but one that ended in bathos when the chaps said “Right, the concert’s in a fortnight’s time.” “Not with me it isn’t,” said Fernande, and that was the end of the matter.

There was certainly nothing missing on the musical side, as I realized when I discovered in the Austrian Radio’s index of recordings a performance by her of the notoriously difficult Tippett Piano Concerto. Its designated first performer had withdrawn, declaring it unplayable; the veteran virtuoso Louis Kentner had then stepped in and proved him wrong; and here was five-foot two Fernande taking it on! Poor health meant an early end to her work, and she died too young: I count her one of the great musicians in my life.

BBC Music on the Glock Era and After is published by Plumbago Books and is available in both hardcover and paperback from booksellers of repute.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Every Day is a Good Day

This is the title of a travelling exhibition of prints, watercolours and drawings by John Cage that will open at the Baltic Centre in Gateshead in mid-June, continuing on to locations in Cambridge, Huddersfield, Glasgow and Bexhill on Sea over the course of the following eighteen months. Echoing Cage’s use of chance, the exhibition will be selected and installed using a computerised version of the I-Ching.

Peter Dickinson’s volume of interviews, CageTalk: Dialogues with & about John Cage, remains essential reading. To celebrate the opening of Every Day, we offer the following short excerpt from Dickinson’s interview with Cage himself:

PD I’d like to try to see whether you feel the Zen involvement needs understanding by those who want to account—in a very Western, logical way—for what you’ve done since about 1950.

JC I’m not sure. I’m thinking, for instance, of a very close friend with whom I feel utter sympathy—Morton Feldman. I would say Morty has no closeness to Zen. His closeness is to Western psychology, don’t you think?

PD Yes, I do. But he wouldn’t go all the way with you in taking his own tastes and desires, as you call it, out of his music.

JC No, he wouldn’t at all. But he feels very close to my work. He also has, so to speak, as deep an understanding and experience of my work as anyone. And yet he has no experience of Zen.

PD The golden opportunity to get yourself out of your music was the discovery of the I Ching?

JC I was first introduced to the I Ching by Lou Harrison before I went to Seattle, and it made no impression on me, but I remembered it. And later, Christian Wolff brought me a copy that his father had just published— of the Bollingen edition, a translation from the German of Wilhelm by Cary Baynes. At that point, when I saw it—I’m speaking now of the chart with the hexagrams—I suddenly understood how to write the Music of Changes.

PD When Feldman called out, “You’ve hit it?”

JC Yes.

PD A kind of eureka?

JC [laughs] We were at a point with his work, my work, and Christian Wolff’s work with the charmed help of David Tudor—a very intoxicating point—where things were happening quickly and richly.

PD It must have been wonderful to come across a performer like David Tudor?

JC Yes. Another great moment that I enjoyed was the close association with Merce, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. The four of us were often together.

PD Would you account for 4’33”, which everybody knows and talks about in terms of Rauschenberg’s completely white and completely black canvases or of the Buddhas who, when asked to make a statement, said absolutely nothing?

JC All of that. Actually, I wrote a text, which has never been published, called “A Composer’s Confessions,” and in it I described the silent piece before I wrote it. But I didn’t give myself the right to write it until I saw the white paintings of Bob’s.

PD You’ve said quite often that 4’33” is the piece of yours that you like best.

JC Yes.

PD Why?

JC Well, I listen to it all the time! [extended laughs] I wish you’d ask me such questions all the time. [more laughs]

PD You listen to it all the time by your selection [Cage: Yes], but in a concert hall it’s given to a paying audience.

JC The pieces that are given [laughs], that aren’t that, are a terrible interruption! [extended laughs]

PD So all sound is an interruption of the silence?

JC I consider it my responsibility not to interrupt that, you see.

PD But you’ve also said there’s no such thing as silence?

JC True. But there are, in fact, things to be heard when you listen to nothing— to no music.

PD This is now fascinatingly logical in the Zen manner but illogical in the European manner. Was it something of this sort—your insistence on getting yourself out of your music—that caused difficulties with Boulez when you were quite close at one point?

JC I suppose so. We had a very interesting correspondence; I think ultimately it will be published.

PD Some of it was very technical?

JC Oh yes. Some of his letters to me were just absolutely marvellous in terms of information. His handwriting was so very small; mine was scrawly and large. He wrote on pale blue, transparent airmail paper—on both sides—so the writing on one side affects the reading of the writing on the other side. It was very difficult. We used to get microscopes—because it was in French besides. [laughs] We were struggling to understand it.

As we have had to omit Peter Dickinson’s footnotes from this post, we should point out that ‘A Composer’s Confessions’ and Cage’s correspondence with Boulez have since been published. It is also worth mentioning that Cage did not always choose 4’33” as his favourite piece. Nearly twenty years ago Dickinson was asked, by a leading music magazine, to review a ‘recording’ of the piece. The CD was fully packed, complete with booklet notes, but 4’33” was the only work on the disc. Dickinson offered to review it with the normal heading, then a blank space and his name at the end. Sadly the editor declined.

CageTalk is available from your favourite bookseller.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Man from the BBC

BBC Radio 3 recently introduced a classical chart which has sharply divided critical opinion. On one hand, anything that encourages more people to listen to classical music - and indeed Radio 3 - can only be a good thing. Then again, should the publicly-funded BBC be muscling in on areas more than adequately covered by the likes of Classic FM? Should they instead let the popular fend for itself and focus on the unexpected? Is the whole idea of a classical chart rather ‘like a paunchy middle-aged man squeezing himself into a pair of tight blue jeans, looking a bit silly and terminally uncool’ according to critic Rupert Christiansen?

Long before the days of classical Top 20s came the Glock era (1959-1972), examined in
a new memoir by Leo Black published by Plumbago Books. Before he became an author of books on Schubert and Rubbra, Black was a BBC producer with an affinity for singers and Austro-German music. In his 28 years at the Corporation - years that extended well beyond 1972 - Black learnt the system, worked with leading BBC figures and musicians and produced countless programmes. In the first of a number of extracts from this delightful publication, Leo Black sets the scene:

At the end of the 1950s the BBC still enjoyed its monopoly, but a very limited range of stations had to cater for a wide variety of ‘brows’. Culturally, ever since the end of the war it had led the way with its Third Programme, the first European radio network devoted exclusively to music, drama and ‘the spoken word’. BBC Management, perhaps aware that its musical activities were in something of a rut, went in search of a dynamic, forward-looking new Controller for that output. As for me, I had spent two fraught years trying to prove myself in the strange and worldly business of music publishing, after a too-long five years in Oxford’s ivory tower. At the London branch of Universal Edition, Vienna (Alfred A. Kalmus Ltd.), I was feeling as near a nadir as I had with the parent firm in Vienna three years earlier, aware that I was proving ineffective apart from keeping the copyright registrations up to date, and that my social and spiritual lives were going nowhere fast.

With the BBC about to announce its new Controller, I had a pub talk with my closest friend, the composer Hugh Wood, which touched on the two most likely candidates. They were the publisher and notorious practical joker Howard Hartog (who, not that I knew it, had a background in broadcasting from his time with the British occupying forces in Germany) and the pianist, ex-music-critic and organizer of the Bryanston, later Dartington, Summer School, William Glock. Howard, then at the rival firm of Schott’s, had his eye on me and was noticeably friendly. As for Glock, I proclaimed that he was quite unlikely, for some reason or other, to be a viable candidate.

He was duly appointed; Hartog went on to run a top artists’ agency with Joan Ingpen, later a high-up at the Royal Opera House, and her dachshund Williams, whose subsequent life is not a matter of public record though the name survives. I became a small spoke in a large and involuted wheel that rolled waywardly on for a decade and more, until sociology caught up with it and classical music’s place in people’s lives began to change beyond recognition.

For a youngster, it was simply the time to add to his academic knowledge by learning from remarkable colleagues about music and life (an unending process still under way in his later seventies). Certain composers of particular importance to me meant little or nothing to Glock, particularly Franz Schmidt, who most strongly contradicts all the period’s short-lived current assumptions linking ‘progressiveness’ with musical substance. His gradual illumination of my life, from a low-point in a Viennese hospital onward, will emerge in due course. His exact contemporary and opposite-number, Arnold Schoenberg, dominated my existence for a good ten years, a chance conversation after a recording by his literary executor, the pianist Leonard Stein, leading to the first hundred thousand Schoenberg words out of roughly a million that I eventually translated. Post-First-World-War pupils of whom he thought highly were Roberto Gerhard, still a force during my early BBC years, and Hanns Eisler and Nikos Skalkottas, neither of whom I met (Skalkottas, indeed, had been dead for ten years when I joined). A significant figure in my early BBC life was Luigi Dallapiccola, and he is recalled at some length with great affection. Hugh Wood was certainly noticed by Glock, who commissioned more than one of his major early works, but his role for me has always been that of close friend and conscience.

More to follow in the coming weeks. BBC Music in the Glock Era and After by Leo Black is available in hardcover and paperback from Plumbago Books, distributed worldwide by Boydell & Brewer Ltd.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Nature Boy

Barry Emslie’s Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love has attracted lavish praise, already described as ‘the essential Wagner book of the year’ in Classical Music magazine. It is a bold book which argues that Wagner's music dramas cannot be understood if treated separately from his thought, his life and the intellectual and artistic climate of his day. To give a flavour of Emslie’s style, here is an extended excerpt from his examination of the character of Siegfried:

Siegfried has a mother complex; indeed he has the mother of all mother complexes. Not least among the attractions of this is that Wagner, when it comes to maternal longing, is extremely sensitive. And although this is highly subjective territory, I suggest that many of the most tender and beautiful passages in the score of Siegfried are expressive of those moments when the hero muses on his mother. I would also make a similar claim for the exquisite passage at the end of Walküre when Wotan kisses his daughter/bride Brünnhilde to sleep.

Siegfried is the ideal oedipal candidate because he is not only obsessed with The Mother; he has never had any contact with a woman. He lives in state of absolute lack, but it is a knowing lack. That is, the empty site of the absent mother is something of which he is heart-breakingly aware. It pains him. But he has come to this knowledge in a purely pantheist fashion. He has observed all-wise nature working out her various miracles among the creatures of the forest and has thereby inferred the truth about pairing and reproduction. He is, in fact, a vulgar materialist, a true child of nature. Offended yet again by Mime’s lies, he retorts: “My ears do not believe you. I’ll credit only the evidence of my own eyes.” Having then dismissed Mime’s claims to be mother and father in one, he is confronted with trying to make sense of the great gap where the secret of his identity lies. Solving this mystery, gaining this knowledge both theoretically and – when he meets Brünnhilde – corporeally is the real agenda of the work. Indeed within the parameters of Wagnerian ideology this can only be accomplished courtesy of the deepest (i.e. sexual) experience of life. With this will come not only entry into manhood but, potentially, into human society as well. Firstly, however, he must get a name and the name of his parents. Mime must be forced to give up this information. After this has been achieved the dwarf feels compelled to produce the broken shards of Nothung. But here his motives are ambivalent as he needs both the sword and Siegfried to kill Fafner. However, while these events put Siegfried on the narrative road of the great adventure, the profound emotional lack, expressed as maternal longing, remains his sole motivation. Psychologically he is in effect setting out on a search for his mother, although he does not know this. In fact he is ostensibly aware that such a search is impossible in commonsense terms, Mime having explained that Sieglinde died in giving birth. On hearing this Siegfried’s response was brief but exceptionally poignant. Superficially regarded, he knows – and we know – that he has no hope of finding the all-privileged, all desired woman. Yet Wagner’s subtlety is such that we come to understand that that is, nevertheless, the hero’s unconscious agenda. Furthermore, we will come to feel – at the very least – that such an agenda is realisable once we enter into the deeper metaphysical world of The Ring.

The first stage in this oedipal narrative is the passage already referred to as “Forest Murmurs”. Left alone by Mime in front of Fafner’s cave we experience Siegfried for the first time as a true child of, and in, nature. Naturally he muses on his mother. There is no better place for him to do so irrespective of whether we are inclined to look for specific maternal (womb based) symbols in the setting or not. Nature herself is surely enough. His frustrated mother love is expressed in several telling passages. He is struck that he cannot imagine what she looked like (but speculates that her eyes must have been lustrous like the deer’s) and asks himself the naïve question “Do all men’s mothers die of their sons?” In this instance the mother’s status as the paradoxically absent but omniscient signifier, could not be more explicit. And yet there is a slight, and poignant, contradiction. Siegfried’s empiricism seems not to do the business when it comes to his own kind. He knows full well that in the forest the female is not condemned to sacrifice her life in childbirth. However, not having experienced any human society (the dwarf Mime in the Wagnerian scheme of things hardly qualifies) he cannot make the obvious inference with any certainty. Women may be different. In Wagner they are certainly special.

It is not too fanciful to suggest that Wagner is knowingly drawing our attention here to the wholly apposite dichotomy between the individual absent mother for whom Siegfried longs, and maternal nature which not only surrounds him but moreover creates the womb-like benevolent and comforting environment in which he is most completely at home and where, consequently, he has no need to learn fear. A Schopenhauerian might see this as a (temporary) triumph over the debilitating awareness of individuation which otherwise alienates the subject from the universal will and thereby makes impossible a deeper understanding of its phenomenon: the world. Siegfried gives us some sense here of the will-in-itself in that he is, momentarily, pantheism embodied. However there is no way that Wagner can pursue this agenda, given that he is set on celebrating the amoral hero who is true to greater and undiluted egocentric values and must, therefore, exuberantly and hopefully leave the forest and burst into the world as a wilful “doer”. Whether Wagner likes it or not, the hero he sketched more than two decades before he finished musically setting the text, has much in common with the world enhancing individual celebrated for his amoral greatness in the pages of the philosopher Schopenhauer most despised: Hegel.

There then follows the business by which Siegfried enters the cave and thus goes more deeply into nature. Subsequently Fafner’s blood and the decoding of the Forest Bird’s song accord him an identity which is unique in The Ring. In this, at least, Wagner realises his agenda. He has found dramatic means equal to the deeper story and its symbols. The disaster for the composer comes about, as we have seen, when he can find no acceptable terms of reference for Siegfried (and Brünnhilde) once he has taken one of them out of the forest and brought the other down from the mountain top.

However, it is only when Siegfried encounters Brünnhilde that the true subtlety of the oedipal trauma becomes clear. Having dismissed his father’s murderer (as he not unfairly regards Wotan) and faced down the fire (no problem as he is still without fear) he frees the sleeping Brünnhilde from her armour and discovers that she is “not a man”. At this point he immediately learns fear and calls frantically on his mother to think of him. Soon after – before he has kissed Brünnhilde awake – he again calls on his mother, asking her to see what has become of her valiant child. Thus the all-important signifier of the absent mother becomes step by step associated with the present woman for whom, as Siegfried repeatedly declares, his heart pounds and his blood rushes. And subsequently when the awoken Brünnhilde explains to him that she protected him before he was born, that she “fed [his] tender being,” the two notions become momentarily fused. Siegfried imagines that he has encountered his actual mother and mate in one, whereupon Brünnhilde is compelled to bring him back to what we might call commonsense reality.

This is an adept set of shifts and, although the relevant passages are short and the matter speedily dealt with, it should be seen as a clear and important advance in respect of what Wagner can do with sexual mores, love, knowledge and identity. In Parsifal, however, exactly that same nexus will surface in a superficially similar manner. But this time the synthesis will be, in real terms, much deeper and more far-reaching. In fact, in the swindle stakes Parsifal will out trump everything that precedes it. Meanwhile in Siegfried, once Brünnhilde has cleared up the misunderstanding, the oedipal complex is simply and relatively brusquely put to one side and everything is then exclusively focused on the coming union. But even while we may not see that union as literally oedipal in that it does not directly express Siegfried’s mother complex, it certainly implies it. Furthermore it is still, literally, an incestuous pairing. Siegfried is, after all, about to copulate with his twin parents’ half sister. He can, at least in his present state of ignorance, hardly know this, but she, and we, most certainly do.

What follows has more to do with Brünnhilde and at this point we should backtrack briefly to the moment of her awakening. It is striking that her first words are not to Siegfried, about whom she is already better informed than he, but to the natural world; her own shining natural world. She greets nature. She hails the sun, the light, the day. And the score is duly flooded with radiance. Nevertheless, she will no more be able to remain immaculately in that milieu than Siegfried has been able to remain in the forest. In fact it is worthwhile noting that Siegfried was always well aware that the forest was not the “be all and the end all”. When told in act one of Fafner’s lair and where it was to be found, he observed that it is “not far from the world”. But of course this is meagre stuff in comparison to what Brünnhilde knows and has experienced. As a result her encounter with Siegfried is much more complicated than his with her. She knows too much and is therefore forced into the role of his teacher.

In some ways – though not sexually, she is a virgin – she is the classic older woman. Furthermore she finds herself in momentary difficulties because of the radical shift in her identity which has seen her lose her Godhead only to be compensated by the miserable status of a mere woman. This appals her and she initially asks to be left alone. However, as we know, the seemingly miserable status of “woman” is, in the Wagnerian scheme of things, redolent with higher philosophical significance. This is particularly so when the privileged woman mates (whether “idealistically” or, as here, clearly physically) with the needy male. There is no more ethereal role for the eternal feminine, at least until that ultimate moment is reached when she will sacrifice her own life to bring the beneficent parable to an even greater, and decisive, climax. So Brünnhilde succumbs passionately to Siegfried’s ardent demands and they duly couple in a torrent of (barely singable) exaltation. When they climax (at least musically) they do so by welding “radiant love” to “laughing death.” Love (implying procreation) and death might be seen as nature’s most fundamental categories. Wagner sees them as such. And it is with the signifier “death” that the work joyously concludes. It is the last word we hear from both of them, blazing out at the very end in the full self-confidence of Brünnhilde’s top C. Of course Wagner had known that death was a necessary ingredient in the recipe of the music drama from the moment he first tackled the redemption theme in The Flying Dutchman. However before setting the last act of Siegfried he had not only read Schopenhauer but written and composed Tristan und Isolde. As a result he had a deeper understanding of death and a greater ability to take full advantage of it as the necessary corollary of love; which is to say as the noblest manifestation of nature and the royal road to renunciation.

Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love is available from all good booksellers.