Friday, 21 October 2011


When we started this blog just over four years ago, it was intended to be a way to bring our music books to the attention of a wider audience. We quickly dropped the idea of mentioning events in music generally - other bloggers are doing that better than we could - and instead concentrated on stories from our authors and excerpts from our broad range of books on classical music. Many of you seemed to enjoy it and a flattering number of other music bloggers linked to it or referenced it, including Alex Ross and the mighty Overgrown Path.

Well, all good things come to an end, and we feel it’s time to bring down the curtain on our beloved Stave. We’ll soon be replacing it with an online newsletter - the Posthorn - which will feature articles on our books, interviews with our authors, excerpts from new titles, competitions, special offers, free books, and balloon-twisting - well, not balloon-twisting. To sign up for the Posthorn, simply send an e-mail to and a link to the first issue will be sent to you in November 2011.

In the meantime, anything posted on the web is there for eternity, and we invite you to look over our past posts and sample some of the best writing on classical music in cyberspace and, indeed, in the real world too.

Many thanks to all our readers. See you again soon in the Posthorn.

Michael Richards and Ralph Locke

Monday, 19 September 2011

Gunther Schuller at the Met

Next month the University of Rochester Press will publish a book that is already attracting critical acclaim from proofs that were sent out to potential reviewers, the first volume of Gunther Schuller’s autobiography. Whether you know Schuller as a jazz composer and performer, or a jazz historian, or a composer of contemporary concert music, or a conductor or writer on classical music, or even - for those with long memories - a horn player, you will be charmed by Schuller’s attempt to ‘document the incredibly fortunate, exciting life in music (and its sister arts) that I have been privileged to live thus far,’ as he puts it in his Preface to the book.

Here, after our summer break, is the first of a number of extracts from this compelling memoir. In this week’s edited extract, we join Schuller as a horn player in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in 1949:

One of that season’s happiest encounters for me—and I think for most of the orchestra—was the arrival of Jonel Perlea, one of the best conductors to grace the Met’s podium during my years there. Romanian-born, but trained in Munich and Leipzig, where he studied with Max Reger at the Hochschule (he must have been in the same classes with my father, both being the same age), Perlea had already enjoyed a distinguished conducting career in Europe, including leading the first performances in Romania of Rosenkavalier, Meistersinger, and Falstaff.

At the Met Perlea was given four operas to conduct: Rigoletto, Carmen, Traviata, and for his American debut, Tristan und Isolde. In his very first rehearsal we could tell that we were in the hands of a superior musician. (I found out later that he was also a fine composer, more than just a conductor-composer.) He managed to bring to that ecstasy- and hysteria-laden score a wonderful calming restraint. With Fritz Stiedry the more frantic episodes in Tristan, especially in the third act, could easily spin out of control. It is incredibly intense music, sometimes more intense than it can readily tolerate. Perlea treated the music with an almost chamber music transparency—lyric, eloquent, even elegant—without diluting the drama and emotional excitement of Tristan, or for that matter of Carmen or any of the operas Perlea was given.

All this was all the more amazing since Perlea had had a heart attack and a stroke, and as a result was paralyzed on most of his right side; he conducted only with his left hand. This is highly unusual and takes some getting used to—which we did very quickly. We really loved this man. Alas, Perlea was at the Met for only one year. All year long we kept hearing backstage rumors that certain conductors, especially Alberto Erede, also new at the Met in 1949, were agitating with the management to have Perlea retired. If true, it was but another typical example of what is known far and wide in the music world as “opera intrigue.” I saw Perlea several times in the 1950s in the hallways at the Manhattan School of Music, where both of us were on the faculty, and I could never resist telling him how much we missed him after he was let go.

Near the end of the 1949 Met tour we began to hear rumors that our orchestra might be hired to play a two-week season—at the Metropolitan Opera House—of the visiting Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The rumor turned out to be true, and the two weeks with Sadler’s Wells were a wonderful musical and educational experience. It brought back many happy memories of my days with the Ballet Theatre, six years earlier; and now I was fortunate enough to witness with my own eyes the brilliant work of England’s premier ballet company, with its outstanding, oh so graceful prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. (This was a special bonus for Margie [Schuller’s wife], who was so keenly interested in great ballet. She came to almost every performance, accompanied by Jeannie Clark, my dancer friend from Ballet Theatre.) But for me the two major highlights of the Sadler’s Wells visit were the discovery of Prokofiev’s extraordinary Cinderella music (in its first performance in the United States), and the amazing experience of working with Constant Lambert.

I really looked forward to playing with Lambert, for I admired him greatly as a composer, and for years had heard that he was a marvelous conductor. In England he was generally considered a lightweight composer, I assume owing to his very jazzy 1929 Rio Grande Suite and his catchy, devilishly clever ballet Horoscope. I thought of him more as a kind of British George Gershwin, a high compliment.

I was thrilled with his conducting; it was so intelligent and sensitive, although I noticed that sometimes in certain performances his beat, his direction, would be kind of wavering, wobbly. I began to realize that the man was at times not entirely sober. It got worse when, in the middle of the second week, disaster struck. Halfway through Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet music (which Lambert had turned into a ballet), completely befuddled, he simply broke down in tears and slumped over the podium. We tried to keep playing; Felix Eyle, our concertmaster, beat time with his bow. But it was no use; we barely knew the music (none of us had ever played Hamlet before), and we certainly didn’t know the dancers’ tempos. We never finished the performance. It was a truly tragic occasion; I felt so bad for Lambert. We now all knew that he was a raging alcoholic, and wondered how he had held up so long.

Discovering Prokofiev’s Cinderella music was a much happier experience. It was completely new to me—the first recording (of only excerpts of that ballet) didn’t come out in England until a year after the New York performances. I was so taken with the sheer melodic, harmonic beauty of the music, with Prokofiev’s seemingly boundless creative imagination, that I knew I had to somehow get a look at the score. When I found that none was available for purchase, I did the next best thing: over a period of fours days, in every intermission during the six rehearsals we had of Cinderella, I copied out, either fully or in a shorthand of mine, a dozen of my favorite excerpts from Lambert’s conducting score—which, bless him, he always left on his podium in the pit.

I was now approaching my fifth year at the Met. Two major events loomed ahead, which made my life there much more agreeable, much more rewarding musically, professionally, and artistically. One such event was my full promotion to co-principal horn. David Rattner was relieved of his position near the end of the 1949–50 season, and I was told sometime on the spring tour that Max Rudolf, Fritz Reiner, and Fritz Stiedry had all recommended that, without need for an audition, I be moved up to first horn—with an appropriate and, I thought, rather generous raise in salary. “Would I please accept the offer?” Would I? Well, of course I would. I was thrilled and gratified that my work as third horn (and first horn in Mozart and Rossini operas) had truly been appreciated. It was nice to know that the conducting staff and the management valued my particular way of playing, which contrasted considerably with Richard Moore’s generally more boisterous, extroverted style. I think they recognized that I brought a composer’s insights to my playing, an intimate awareness of the music’s inner workings, structurally, orchestrationally, conceptually, particularly in regard to ensemble considerations.

For me it wasn’t just a horn part, which one could use to display one’s soloistic and technical prowess. My horn part was just one of some thirty other voices that in toto yielded the complex and constantly variable ensemble relationships in an orchestra. I can truly say that there was no ego involved in my playing—pride yes (when justified), but ego, no. I knew that I and my horn part were just one small cog in a great wheel that required constant flexibility and pliancy in adjusting to the myriad and diverse collective demands of the composition. Fitting in—rather than standing out—gave me the greatest pleasure—and still does to this day, a commitment I ardently pursue as a conductor as well.

The other event that not only affected my life as a musician but also significantly enlivened New York’s musical scene, and probably, by extension, the entire opera field in the United States, was the ascendancy of Rudolf Bing to the general manager throne of the Metropolitan Opera Company. I use such language because, in my view and that of most others in the opera world, Bing was an authoritarian aristocrat, virtually a dictator, certainly not a pleasant man to work for and with. He had a rather severe don’t-mess-with-me look about him all the time. Indeed, with his balding head, piercing eyes, and hawklike nose, he always reminded me of Max Schreck in Nosferatu, Murnau’s famous vampire film of 1922. His twenty-two years at the helm of the Met were marked by continual strife, altercations, feuds, and controversy—although they weren’t always his fault or his creation.

All that said, one has to acknowledge that he was in the end an extraordinarily talented, genial impresario–general manager. He really knew his stuff. Bing was what we call in German a real Opernhase (opera hare), richly experienced as managing director (Intendant in German) of the Stadttheater in Darmstadt, Germany, the Charlottenburg Opera in Berlin (that city’s second opera house), and as artistic director of Glyndebourne in England, literally bringing that institution to international prominence in the 1950s. In 1957 he helped organize and then managed the Edinburgh Festival.

Bing was remarkably knowledgeable in musical matters, especially in his primary function and responsibility of bringing to the house the best and most appropriate singers. He set the highest standards in selecting and hiring the casts himself, a skill that had eluded Edward Johnson in his later years. It is not enough to know that a certain role is for a soprano or baritone, and then hire the most famous soprano or baritone in the business. Every part, every role, has its own characteristic requisites: questions of range, timbre, size, and quality of voice. In the category of soprano alone there are officially three kinds: dramatic, lyric, and coloratura. But the Italians make further distinctions, such as soprano acuto (high soprano) and soprano leggiero (light soprano), and—I like this one—soprano sfogato. Furthermore, the Italian vocal tradition is significantly different from the German, and even from the French and English. In addition, not all composers always conformed in their vocal works to these basic categorizations. The same distinct differentiations exist in the other four vocal types: alto, tenor, baritone, and bass. So the opera manager must know particular singers’ voices really well in order to choose someone with the right quality, timbre, and expressive character—not to mention acting ability and stage presence, another aspect of casting decisions that Bing addressed very seriously and successfully. In these matters he engaged a whole roster of singers in his first year as manager who, by their presence and artistry, raised the overall artistic level of the Met. To name a few: the galvanic mezzo-soprano, Fedora Barbieri; the outstanding (but woefully underappreciated) Lucine Amara, who sang important roles at the Met for another incredible twenty-seven years, still in beautiful voice to the very end; Hans Hotter, in the twilight of his career, but one of the greatest Inquisitors ever in Verdi’s Don Carlos; Roberta Peters; Mario del Monaco; Victoria de los Angeles; and, above all, Cesare Siepi, one of the very greatest vocal artists I had the privilege to work with in my fifteen years at the Met.

Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty by Gunther Schuller is scheduled for publication in October by the University of Rochester Press, and can be ordered from your favourite bookseller now.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Springtime on Funen

“Finally, everyone’s talking about Nielsen” is the witty title of an article by Andrew Mellor in the September issue of the Gramophone. It includes contributions from Daniel Grimley whose recent book, Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism, will certainly help nudge along any Nielsen revival. The BBC Proms included a Nielsen symphony alongside one from Sibelius and the Grieg Piano Concerto on August 8th, so perhaps the revival is already underway. Here, in a second extract from Daniel Grimley’s superb study, is an evocative look at Nielsen’s pastoral cantata, Springtime on Funen.

One of the recurring tropes in Nielsen reception, both at home and abroad, is his association with the Danish landscape. Repeatedly presented as a true and faithful son of the soil, Nielsen is held to have captured some elemental quality of the Danish landscape in sound, just as the landscape seems somehow to have determined the texture and grain of much of his musical work.

The pastoral cantata, Fynsk Foraar (‘Springtime on Funen’), is emblematic in this respect. It is here that Nielsen’s evocation of the Danish countryside, and the island of Funen where he was born, appears most powerful and explicit. But Nielsen’s response to the idea of landscape, and to the construction of Funen as specific place and sensibility in music, is more ambiguous than it first seems. In a brief, illuminating moment towards its closing bars, the whirling round dance with which Springtime on Funen concludes unexpectedly gives way to a hushed cadenza for tremolo violins, solo voices, horns, and bassoons. Marked molto adagio, the seven-bar passage is canonic: the soprano’s ornamental melodic arabesque is imitated first by the tenor and then by the baritone (doubled by the woodwind), beneath a shimmering inverted pedal in the upper strings.

Texturally, dynamically, and harmonically, the cadenza is an exceptional and striking event: its Ab minor orientation is a sharp diversion from the round dance’s final tonal goal, a radiant E major (the transition pivots on the enharmonic transformation Eb/D#), and the sudden drop in dynamic level and textural weight is in sharp contrast to the finale’s prevailing fortissimo tutti. The cadenza marks an abrupt change of direction that seemingly brings the whole work momentarily to a stop at the line: ‘Se, Æbleblomster drysser over vejen’ (‘Look, apple blossom scatters down upon the road’). The three soloists repeat the words hypnotically, as though held in rapt attention as they watch the white petals slowly falling to the ground, until the chorus re-enter in the final bar, whispering ‘Natten er vor egen, Æbleblomster drysser’ (‘The night is ours, apple blossom scatters down’). As the words slip silently away, the round dance returns, swiftly cranking up speed and volume once again so that the poignant memory of the spring night, and its associations of vernal love, are breezily blown away as the cantata spirals towards its celebratory final cadence.

On closer inspection, the cadenza might be heard simply as a moment of modest reflection, the brief calm before the uplifting storm of the cantata’s energetic final pages. It can also be understood generically as a closing curtain call for the three soloists who appear, partly in character, earlier in the work, alongside a children’s choir and an adult chorus. Springtime on Funen opens with a gentle sunrise heralding the turning of the season. The soft contours of the landscape are feminised, the spring blossom flowering upon ‘the gnarled apple tree/behind hills as rounded as young girl’s knees’ [det knortede Æbletræ/bag Bakker, der rundes som Pigeknæ]. The soprano solo enters as a spring goddess – Demeter or Persephone, or perhaps a local Nordic deity (Freya) – followed by the tenor, a young sap-filled hero, who greets ‘the gentle day, so mild and long/and full of sun and birdsong’ (‘den milde Dag [så] lys og lang/og fuld af Sol og Fuglesang’). The baritone appears twice: first as the earthy voice of experience, an ‘old bachelor’ whose dark lower register grounds the passage in the rich tilth of the Funen fields, and then later as the melancholy blind musician, ‘Blind Anders’ in Nielsen’s autobiographical account of his childhood, whose mournful clarinet solo provides the cantata’s greatest moment of pathos: ‘small hands seek my old hand/it is as if I touched the spirit of spring (små Hæder søger min gamle Hånd/ det er, som rørte jeg Vårens Ånd’).

In contrast, the cadenza has the feeling of withdrawal and abstraction, a liquefaction or draining away of meaning, as though the characters who enter elsewhere in the work suddenly lose their individual identity and drift from view. The cadenza’s haziness thus assumes the quality of a dream sequence, a hallucinatory episode that seems in some ways emblematic of the act of remembrance itself: the sudden unexpected lighting upon a forgotten image that is simultaneously familiar and strange. The shimmering string tremolo suggests the acute tingling of nerve endings, of a state of heightened awareness, the soprano arabesque appearing almost imperceptibly and then reproducing itself canonically as each stage in the process of recollection generates a further image in turn. The falling apple blossom hence becomes a Proustian key that momentarily unlocks a privileged domain of sensory experience and temporal projection backwards, or rather inwards, towards a hitherto inaccessible level of imagination. And, as swiftly as it emerged, the vision vanishes once more, swept aside by the inevitable return of the closing Dansevise.

Memory, the cadenza reveals, is as much about letting go as about recollection; landscape here is more concerned with erasure than with recording the permanent mark of dwelling and occupation. Nielsen’s springtime is a festival of celebration and rebirth, but it is also merely a seasonal stage in a larger cycle of growth and decay, of flowering and dissolution – it is the trace of landscape’s mutability and constant capacity for change and renewal.

Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism by Daniel Grimley is published by the Boydell Press and is available from all good booksellers, as is Grimley’s earlier book on Grieg. Dan Grimley will be appearing at the Bard Music Festival which starts this weekend. Andrew Mellor's Gramophone blog post on Nielsen can be found here.

Friday, 29 July 2011

John Ireland’s Companion

2012 will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of John Ireland. His reputation lies somewhat in the shadow of Vaughan Williams, Elgar and others, and his music, with its European influences, sits uneasily in the pastoral tradition of twentieth century British music. The anniversary year will see a welcome rush of new and reissued recordings of his endlessly fascinating and attractive work. To open proceedings, the Boydell Press is pleased to publish, later this year, the John Ireland Companion edited by that great champion of British music, Lewis Foreman.

We open a short series of extracts from the book with something rather special. Here Bruce Phillips, Boydell’s music editor-at-large and director of the Ireland Trust, remembers his introduction to the music and to Norah Kirby:

I first became aware of John Ireland’s music in 1961, when I was 16. My piano teacher at school, John Alston, placed in front of me a piano piece called Month’s Mind and said that if I learned to play the piece properly he would take me to meet the composer, then living not far from the school in a converted windmill just outside the village of Washington in West Sussex. I struggled with the piece but became completely captivated by its atmosphere of nostalgic yearning conveyed through harmonies that reminded me of Ravel’s Sonatine, a piece I had attempted to add to my rather restricted repertoire. Here though was music that seemed as quintessentially English as Ravel’s was French, and moreover evoking a rather different Englishness from that of my then musical god, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In June 1962 I read the obituaries of John Ireland, who had died at the age of 82. Much mention was made of the Sussex windmill in which he had passed the last nine years of his life. My relief at not being compelled to visit him and perform his piece to him in person — he would by that time have been unable to see me — was mixed with intense sadness at the news of his death and curiosity to know more about him. Acting on impulse a few days later I went to the one phone booth in the school and looked him up in the local directory. There he was: Ireland, Dr John, Rock Mill, Washington. I rang the number without of course knowing whether anyone would answer or what I would say if anyone did. I heard a woman’s voice at the other end, pressed Button A, and found myself speaking to a lady who introduced herself as Mrs Norah Kirby. I introduced myself as a schoolboy speaking from nearby Lancing College and said that I had been greatly moved and saddened by the news of John Ireland’s passing and that I had come to love his piece Month’s Mind above all other music that I knew.

I discovered in the course of our conversation that Norah Kirby had been John Ireland’s (or as she always referred to him, Dr. Ireland’s) companion, secretary and housekeeper for more or less twenty years. I learned later that she divided the world into those who loved his music and those who did not. By revealing that I had fallen completely in love with Month’s Mind I had fortunately placed myself in the former category. On hearing that I had not heard anything else he had written and that I knew no more about him than had been included in the obituaries, she invited me to lunch, promising to drive me to the beautiful converted windmill in which he had spent nearly the last decade of his life.

I obtained leave from my housemaster and met Norah in Steyning High Street. She was driving Ireland’s last car, a green Ford Popular which she later told me he had bought in the 1950s through contacts in Guernsey, which was then an export market for cars. We drove past Chanctonbury and turned right along a small slip road that led to a drive flanked by pine trees. There at the end of the drive was the windmill, minus its sails but with an adjoining two-storey building erected when it had been converted from a working mill into a residential house.

At that first meeting Norah was in good health. She told me about Ireland’s funeral that had taken place at Shipley, a village between Washington and Horsham. She showed me round the main part of the Mill, especially the octagonal room at the base of the tower, and we walked out of one of the doors into a beautiful garden from which one could see straight up towards Chanctonbury Ring, a large circle of pine trees cresting a promontory jutting out from the line of the South Downs. I was shown Ireland’s study and bedroom and then taken up to the very top of the Mill, from which one could see the results of the extensive sand and gravel extraction that had caused Ireland and Norah so much annoyance almost from the moment they had moved in. I also made the acquaintance of Smokey and Laddin, two Siamese cats that had played an important part in Ireland’s last years and remained for Norah a living link with him.

Over lunch she asked me what pieces of Ireland’s music I knew (at that time only Month’s Mind and ‘Ragamuffin’, the music of which I had found I had at home). She played me the 10-inch LP of Boyd Neel’s recording of the Minuet from A Downland Suite, and presented me with a copy. She showed me the leather-bound autograph book presented to Ireland on his 75th birthday in which a wide range of musicians and other friends and admirers had written messages of congratulations and memories. Prominent among these was one from Ralph Vaughan Williams. This book is now in the British Library along with the majority of Ireland’s autograph manuscripts and correspondence.

Later that summer Norah suffered a series of strokes, doubtless brought on by the stress of Ireland’s death. She made a pretty good recovery except for her left arm, which was paralysed in such a way that it was very difficult for her to use her left hand despite constant physiotherapy. I for my part had left school at the end of December, leaving myself about ten months ‘gap year’ (as it was not then called) until I went up to Christ Church, Oxford. I had no plans for how to spend this time until I received an invitation from Norah to go and stay at the Mill and assist her in matters such as general domestic duties, as well as to provide a sympathetic companion and fellow listener to the many private recordings which had been made of performances and broadcasts of Ireland’s music. I would also be able to meet many of the musicians and friends who regularly visited the Mill. I accepted without hesitation, and was driven down to Sussex through the snow and ice of that legendary winter of 1962-3.

For the next three months, under Norah’s supervision, I acquired rudimentary skills in cooking and cleaning, and learned to drive well enough to accompany her to the places she associated with Ireland: Shipley churchyard, Storrington (where Ireland had been wont in earlier times to meet Arnold Bax in the bar of the Black Horse), Steyning and Pulborough (where lived Mary and Percy Turnbull, the third composer besides Ireland and John Longmire to be on board the SS Antwerp when it left Guernsey for Weymouth a few days before Germany invaded in 1940). I also met the pianists Eric Parkin and Alan Rowlands, the critic Scott Goddard, the broadcaster Alec Robertson, the writer Jocelyn Brooke, the artist Juliet Pannett, and Charlie Markes, whose friendship with Ireland had begun when they were choirboys at St Luke’s before the first world war and had survived a long interruption based on a misunderstanding between them. Another frequent visitor was Laurence Norcross, who in 1959 with John Steele had formed the John Ireland Society that had done so much to rescue Ireland’s music from a period of neglect in the 1950s. Other visitors included Peter and Margaret Taylor, friends of Norah’s from the days even before she had met Ireland and later the principal members of the Trust which she set up in the 1970s.

From this period dates my admiration for John Ireland the composer and interest in John Ireland the man. The picture I gained of him at that time was inevitably influenced by Norah Kirby, whose regard for him bordered on idolatry. There were times when, even then, I realised that he could not have been quite the perfect human being portrayed by Norah. A forceful and articulate person herself, she brooked not a single word of criticism or questioning of any aspect of his life or music, and viewed any failure to further his cause as evidence of malicious conspiracy, as for example his exclusion from the Proms after the BBC music department was taken over by William Glock and Hans Keller (though she much appreciated the hoax perpetrated by Keller and Susan Bradshaw when they recorded and broadcast on the BBC Third Programme music alleged to have been by the Polish composer Piotr Zac). She could take against perfectly good performances or recordings if she thought Ireland would not have approved of them, as for example the singer John Shirley-Quirk, whose Saga LP of songs elicited her constant disparagement. Yet it was Norah who from the mid 1940s, when Ireland had returned to London after the war, had brought order and comfort into the last two decades of his life.

In the month after I left the Mill I was a Hesse student at the 1963 Aldeburgh Festival, one of a group of young people who helped with things like ferrying musicians to rehearsals and concerts, setting out chairs, and the like. A high point while I was there was a party for all the Hesse students given by Imogen Holst at her house. Britten and Pears both came. Bursting with adolescent pride and curiosity I told Britten what I had been doing at Rock Mill, then knowing only that he had studied composition with Ireland and not knowing of the difficult relationship that seems to have existed between them. I asked Britten for his opinion on Ireland’s music. All I can remember of what he said was, first that Ireland’s piano music was difficult to play because it had fistfuls of notes, and that in his answer to my question as to what Ireland was like to meet, Britten replied that he had a strong personality but a weak character.

Ireland was once asked, so the story goes, whether he thought he was a great composer. He is said to have replied after some thought: ‘No, but I think I’m a significant one’. This perhaps tells us something about Ireland’s character. Born the fifth and by some years the last child of Victorian parents—his father was 70 when he was born—his childhood seems not to have been happy. Details of his early schooling are sparse but what is clear is that somehow at the age of 13 Ireland was sufficiently certain of his interest and ability in music to take himself unaided to the Royal College of Music, sit whatever entrance examination or audition was required, and return to Manchester to tell his mother what he had done.

Ireland was never exactly prolific. He once described himself as ‘England’s most laborious composer’. His peak years were between 1910 and 1930, with the apex coming in 1913-23, the years in which The Forgotten Rite, the second piano trio and second violin sonata, the piano sonata, the cello sonata, the Housman cycle The Land of Lost Content and Mai-Dun were written. The 1930s saw the production of Ireland’s two great works for piano and orchestra, the Piano Concerto and Legend, plus A Downland Suite, A London Overture, the Concertino Pastorale for strings, and his one extended work for chorus and orchestra, his setting of John Addington Symonds’s poem ‘A Vista’ entitled These Things Shall Be, in which Ireland, with more than a little help from his friend and pupil Alan Bush, expressed an optimistic hope for an Utopian future seemingly at odds with his innately pessimistic outlook. During the Second World War came two masterpieces, Sarnia, begun in his beloved Guernsey, and the Fantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano. His Epic March was written in response to a BBC commission for a patriotic march. After the war came the overture Satyricon, a piece that deserves to be played more often if for nothing else for its glorious clarinet tune in the middle section. The immediate postwar period also brought Ireland’s only film score, The Overlanders.

In England we tend not to celebrate our native composers enough unless they have produced a string of symphonies, concertos, large scale choral works and operas— and perhaps not even then. Ireland’s music is never going to achieve the same degree of popularity, admiration and wide exposure as, say, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten, or Walton. He is often described as a miniaturist, sometimes in rather patronising terms. We can regret that he did not write more orchestral music given his mastery of orchestral colouring. His legacy is that of an intensely self-critical perfectionist who has given us some exquisite pieces for piano, many beautiful and deeply moving songs, some splendid sonatas and piano trios, and a handful of arguably great pieces for orchestra. It is to be hoped that the John Ireland Companion will contribute towards explaining some of the background to the life and music of this very significant composer.

The John Ireland Companion, edited by Lewis Foreman (whose classic biography of Bax is also available from the Boydell Press), will be published in October. A further extract will follow shortly.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Michael Talbot's Vivaldi

The Boydell Press is privileged to publish a remarkable new book by the internationally renowned Vivaldi scholar, Michael Talbot. The Vivaldi Compendium includes a short biography of the composer, bibliography, a list of works, and takes us alphabetically from “Abate” to “Ziani, Marc’Antonio”. Here Professor Talbot gives us some background to what is certain to be considered an essential resource for anyone with an interest in the composer.

Every great composer needs at least one compact book of handy reference that enables anyone interested in him, from the ordinary music lover to the expert, to access basic data instantly and if possible to learn where to find more on the same topic. This is all the more true of a composer such as Vivaldi, about whom knowledge is growing so fast, so that constant updating is needed. For instance, literally dozens of new works by him have been discovered in the last fifty years. Vivaldi is not alone in being a composer on whom there is much ‘misinformation’ in circulation, and it is vital to set the record straight where one can.

Some thirty years ago an eminent Austrian Vivaldian, Walter Kolneder, wrote what he called a ‘Vivaldi Lexicon’ in response to this need. This book had many drawbacks – for a start, it was printed in such small type that one almost needed a magnifying glass to read the bibliography – but it did enough to reveal the potential of a Vivaldi dictionary of this kind and suggested what other, complementary sections could appear together with it. The book that I have entitled The Vivaldi Compendium is a more ambitious, and naturally more up-to-date, realization of the same concept.

The core of the book is its Dictionary section. This has entries for persons, institutions, places, genres, associated musical terminology, individual works and collections and many other items relevant to Vivaldi. To give a flavour, the entries for the letter E are: Echo-Repeats; Eller, Rudolf; Enharmonic change; Ensemble concerto; Ephrikian, Angelo; Ercole su ’l Termodonte, RV 723; Erdmann, Ludwig; Estate, L’, RV 315; Estragiudiziale; Estro armonico, L’, op. 3; Everett, Paul. (I should reassure the reader that most letters have many times that number of entries!) There is ample cross-referencing between the entries, so that the reader, starting at a randomly chosen point, can hop back and forth between entries following the drift of his interest. More important, nearly all the entries are cross-referenced to items in the bibliography that I have suggested for further reading.

This Bibliography section, running to 26 pages, is the probably the longest on Vivaldi in existence. Since the book itself is in English, priority has been given to English-language publications, although full account has also been taken of the many vital contributions in Italian, German, French and other languages. The other two sections are, first, a list of Vivaldi’s compositions that, with its well over 800 items, absorbs the latest discoveries and the latest opinions over the authenticity of certain controversial works and, second, a concise biography of the composer that likewise aims to bring to light the latest information.

Although The Vivaldi Compendium is as reliable and authoritative as I can make it, it is deliberately not an ‘impersonal’ product. On Vivaldi I have some strong opinions that I am eager to share, although I hope I have also shown fairness towards contrary opinions. While writing it, I have always been aware that its potential readership extends far beyond the academic fold. It is the sort of book, for instance, that a radio station might keep in the office in order to check a detail for the announcer of a broadcast piece by Vivaldi, or a collector of Vivaldi’s music on CDs might like to have handy. I will be interested to see how successful I have been in making the book serious but at the same time reader-friendly.

I enjoyed the experience of writing the book. Since I have been researching into Vivaldi for over forty years, during which period I have been writing constantly on him, I had little extra work to do, apart from keeping up with whatever literature or discoveries made themselves known during the period of the writing (and right up to the proofs stage, actually). But it is too easy to forget things, especially as one gets older, and my work on the book certainly reminded me of many important details that had slipped out of my mind over the years.

On the other hand, it was extraordinary how many absolutely new and unexpected things dropped into my lap while I was writing it simply by utilizing the resources of the Internet almost in a spirit of play. When I started out as a researcher in the early 1960s there were no photocopiers, let alone scanners and computers (with their music notation programs, search engines and e-mail). It seems almost indecent how easy it has become to acquire and store information, even though the problem of deciding how reliable that information is never goes away.

The experience of writing the book certainly helped me – as I hope it will many readers – to co-ordinate things better: to see more clearly the multifarious interconnections between the composer, his world and his music. In a sense, the book is a ‘taking of stock’, showing exactly how and where Vivaldi stands in 2011. But it is also meant as an act of thanksgiving towards the worldwide community of Vivaldians and Vivaldi-lovers, who have sustained my interest in the composer for so long.

The Vivaldi Compendium by Michael Talbot is published by the Boydell Press and available from your favourite bookseller. Talbot's Chamber Cantatas of Antonio Vivaldi is also available.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The ‘Lights’ vs 'the Rival Party’

Last month we ran a post by Nancy Newman in which she explained her fascination with the history of the Germania Musical Society and its travels around North America, bringing a variety of music to audiences far and wide. In this extract from her book, Good Music for a Free People, Newman discusses controversies encountered by the Germanians in Boston over their programming. Some wanted more concentrated, homogenous programs of substantial works, while others favoured more dances and lighter fare.

Although it might be overstatement to say that “all eyes were upon the Germania” as they prepared for the 1853–54 season, it is not unimaginable that the members hoped to reach heights comparable to those of the previous year. The season began splendidly, with numerous “special attractions” and extra musicians supplementing the ensemble. As in the previous season, the subscription series of ten concerts had very reasonable terms: a package of thirty tickets was ten dollars, or fifteen for five dollars, all “to be used at pleasure.” The orchestra held some admissions in reserve for those who could not commit to the series: “In order to prevent the confusion and disappointment experienced upon the unusual demand for tickets last season, Only a Limited Number of subscription tickets will be issued.” Single tickets were available at the usual fifty cents apiece.

The first half-dozen concerts were very much like those of the previous two seasons. With the exception of the “Wagner Night,” each program opened with a complete symphony. No dances or potpourris were offered, and one or more guest soloists appeared at each event. In early December, Dwight’s Journal published a letter to the editor suggesting that the Germania offer weekly, rather than fortnightly, concerts. The author claimed to speak for many like-minded people. “I have also heard the wish expressed that we might have from [the orchestra] concerts more entirely of classical music, which should present, too, not only the best works of the best masters, but should produce them consecutively, and in some kind of system; a series of ‘Mozart nights’ and ‘Beethoven nights,’ for instance, or something of the kind.”

It was surely not a coincidence that the Germanians announced an additional subscription series devoted entirely to “classical” music the very next week. On December 10, Dwight called attention to the “new plan” in a long editorial. Each of the five concerts would include four major works—two symphonies and two overtures—with selections by Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart constituting nearly half the repertory (nine of twenty pieces). Schumann and Mendelssohn each appear twice, for another 20 percent of the total. With their concentration on works by the first Viennese School and other German composers, these programs are startlingly close to those of the modern symphony orchestra.

The Germanians kept the new subscription lists open for about a month, with the first concert scheduled for mid-January. Despite Dwight’s efforts and the reduction of ticket prices, the series failed to attract enough subscribers to cover its projected costs. The Germania abandoned the plan just before the first concert would have taken place. Dwight attributed its failure simply to having been “brought forward too late in the season,” and urged the orchestra to try again next year. In the meantime, the members were still faced with the demand that they offer more concerts of some sort. Just two weeks later, they made a swing in the opposite direction. Instead of adding concerts devoted to an exclusively “classical” repertory, they proposed four programs emphasizing “modern,” that is, “lighter” genres.

Manager Bandt gave two reasons for this decision. The first was that the Germania had already sold more tickets than there were seats available for the remaining concerts, and there were even more music lovers who wanted tickets. A season total of fifteen subscription concerts was needed to accommodate everyone. Second, “the undersigned has had application from many of the subscribers to compose the programme of mostly classical compositions; and again from many to have the Germanians perform more music of lighter character. To satisfy all, the Society has adopted the following plan: To perform alternately a programme of classical and one of modern music—which brings the next Concert in the category of the latter style, a Concert in which none but light music, with few exceptions, will be performed.”

The first concert was to take place that evening, January 28. “To-night the ‘lights’ have it,” commented Dwight. “A programme light indeed! (and if we may be pardoned the suggestion) a little too closely modelled upon Jullien’s programmes, not to endanger the Germania prestige. But we are glad to see that good overtures and parts of symphonies are not excluded.” He anticipated that the “lights” would outnumber “the rival party” at upcoming concerts, and that the Germanians’ revised plan would “test effectually the relative strength of parties in this matter.”

For the first time, Dwight described their audience in the language of partisanship. Previously, he had maintained that music lovers existed on a continuum of appreciation, based on education and prior experience, but always with the capacity for growth and further refinement. At this crucial moment, however, he recognized that alliances, whether voluntary or character-based, were being drawn. He hoped the next few months would “show that the ‘appreciating few’ fond of good music for music’s sake are not by any means so very few as it has been tauntingly and often said.” Dwight’s pessimism is epitomized by the fact that he dubbed those who appreciated “music for music’s sake” members of “the rival party.”

The program that night consisted of twelve pieces presented in two equal parts. As Dwight indicated, a symphony movement and three overtures were included. There were three dances, and a potpourri was revived, representing the return of these two genres to the Germania’s subscription concerts in Boston. A song by local composer Thomas Comer was premiered, and the assisting pianist played Mendelssohn’s relatively flamboyant “Rondo Brillante.” In its general format, this program is typical of the “light” concerts added that season: twelve selections, with overtures opening each half, three dances, and opera excerpts for instrumentalists or guest vocalist. Virtuosic showpieces filled out the rest, with the occasional inclusion of a movement from a lengthy, serious work.

The first program for “the rival party” differed greatly. It consisted of only five pieces: a symphony, two concerti, and two overtures. The overture to Medea may have been a Boston premiere; Beethoven’s Concerto No. 4 certainly was. “A purer and a richer programme never was presented to an American audience,” commented Dwight. Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, performed by Wilhelm Schultze, were particularly well done. The next two “classical” concerts followed a similar format: each one featured an entire symphony, a piano concerto, and one or two overtures. Of the sixteen selections total, only one, an aria from Der Freischütz, required a vocalist. With the exception of Cherubini’s Overture, the programs consisted entirely of German and Austrian composers. Beethoven and Mendelssohn account for five selections each, or nearly two-thirds of the repertory. Two works each by Mozart and Weber, and one by Schumann, made up the remainder.

While the Germanians carried out their innovations, Dwight began to articulate his own ideas on concert programming. It was a topic that had interested others in his circle for several years. Margaret Fuller, for instance, had “called on concert directors to arrange carefully the genres of music to be performed, with attention to the balance to be achieved as well as the effect on the listeners.” In his review of the Germania’s “Extra Concert” on January 14, Dwight made several observations about the relationship of individual works to the event as a whole. Le Désert was featured in the concert’s second half, but the first part seemed haphazardly planned. A chorus from Elijah was well done, but should not have followed Aptommas’s harp solo. Spohr’s song, “The Huntsman, Soldier & Sailor,” on the other hand, “was over before we could begin to make out what was the amount of it.” In conclusion, Dwight proposed that “miscellaneous programme-making should be more a work of art.”

Good Music for a Free People by Nancy Newman is available now from your favourite bookseller.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Modernism in the Modern World

Arved Ashby’s edited volume of essays, The Pleasure of Modernist Music, was first published in 2004 and reissued in paperback towards the end of 2010. Here, Ashby discusses notions of a ‘cultural war’ in the light of some reactions to the book.

Although ideas for this book date back to the mid-1990s, it really only started coming together after 9/11. U.S. politics were starting to take on the bitter partisanship that now threatens the very cohesion and stability of the country, especially with the 2010 midterm elections. The "culture wars" first surfaced back in the 1990s: speaking at the 1992 Republican convention, Pat Buchanan informed the citizenry that a morally depraved Clinton presidency would be a tragic setback in the "religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war… critical to the kind of nation we will one day be."

Putting together the words "culture" and "war" had a certain self-conscious bombast back then, a certain pre-9/11 innocence: Buchanan was using the phrase to market his own political ambitions, for the most part. Twenty years later, however, these oppositions between progressiveness and conservatism have become so acrid and divisive that the "war" has come to involve guns as well as words. Tragically, national events seem to have less and less to do with culture and more and more to do with war. I often fear for the future of my country these days, but then it must be said that an angry, even sick conservatism — a militant resistance, at any price in blood or humanity, to the future and to the communalities that define culture —has reared its ugly head in so many places around the world.

The Pleasure of Modernist Music arrived early in this divisive history, when it was becoming clear that musical taste and reception — as part of these "culture wars" in North America and beyond — had more to do with politics than with aesthetics and needs of expression. Some would say, no doubt, that musical reception has always been a political matter. And to read Eduard Hanslick criticizing Liszt's symphonic poems in the 1860s is to see someone hearing a particular musical novelty through a thick cloud of pure ideology or, rather, someone refusing outright to hear that music because of ideology. Some would go further and say that aesthetics and listening are necessarily forms of ideology, are ideologies by definition. But if that's true, how can people of different backgrounds, tastes, and agendas agree on the value of certain musicians, composers, and works? How could Hanslick seem not to have even listened to Liszt — at least not to the Liszt we know and accept today? In other words, how could a person as smart as Hanslick have been so wrong? (That is presuming Hanslick's view of Liszt was obscured by ideology while our view today is less obscured — a fairly safe presumption, I would say.)

And let us remember that Hanslick talked about culture without mentioning war. He heartily berated Liszt, but didn't resort to a 21st-century style of critical privilege or strategic purging of those things that happened to offend him. He didn't say Liszt's music was in the ashbin of history, or that it should be burned, or even that it should be ignored. Nor did he couch his arguments in moral terms. By contrast, people of the past decade or two talk about "killing" or "burying" certain kinds of music, or of "letting nature takes its course" and pulling the plug on styles that are said to be "on artificial life support." Whence the homicidal, or at least vulgar Darwinist, rhetoric? I wouldn't say all kinds of music are equally worthwhile, and I can understand how the historical and aesthetic contexts surrounding some musics might inspire resistance or active animosity. But styles themselves are rather like human beings, tangled skeins of weakness and delight, strength and foible. They are breathing bodies — entities that might not insist on being heard, but want at least to abide, to be allowed to exist.

Heine famously said, "Where people burn books, they end up burning human beings." So, if it is hard to see what value or moral utility — or raw usefulness, even — there might be in burying or unplugging artworks, it is easy to see how "always remembering" might be in our best interests. Just as we shouldn't be any more eager to rid ourselves of artworks than of human beings, it also behooves us to keep the historical record as rich and complete as we can. We should avoid consigning those segments of culture we don't approve of to The Dustbin of History — lest we sound like the lobotomizing bureaucrats who operate the strategic "memory holes" in Orwell's 1984. While denying certain segments of history is a criminal offense in some countries, which is as it should be, in most North Atlantic venues it has become strangely fashionable to single out modernist cultures and dismiss and ignore them on history's behalf. This is a very odd thing — perhaps self-contradictory, and certainly hypocritical.

* * *

One lives and one learns. While The Pleasure of Modernist Music garnered rave reviews from modernists and non-modernists alike, others were quick to see naivety in its attempt to "rescue" modernist art from modernist discourse. If I held on to the idea that non-ideological hearings of music were possible, reviews of The Pleasure of Modernist Music showed just how implausible the idea of reading "around" or "past" ideology might be. One reviewer pointed to the hopeless futility of de-ideologizing art, and said the book "has dug [its] own grave" by "piling still more words on the problem" — in short, by propagandizing onanistically for de-propagandization. The book's contributors, instead of offering coffin nails, should have been smart enough to just shut up and let nature takes its course.

Fred Maus's essay "Sexual and Musical Categories" proved a particular hotpoint: I've always thought Fred's chapter one of the book's most shrewd and powerful, and indeed I now give the essay to all my undergraduates to read, but I have yet to see a welcoming response in print. Instead, Fred's piece set off diatribes from people who had clearly decided what it said before they read it. One eminent reader said the author was crying victimization, an accusation that betrays not only misreading, but complete ignorance of the queer theory that Fred clearly describes — a philosophy that has nothing to do with oppression, let alone redressing oppression, and everything to do with identity, making do, and finding any available way to carve out "a place of one's own" in the world. Other readers resolved that Fred was telling us how gay 20th-century composers were attracted to tonality rather than an atonal compositional language.

Regarding his chapter "'One Man's Signal Is Another Man's Noise,'" Andrew Mead was accused of hitching his wagon to recent trends in experiential discussion of post-tonal music, when what he did was describe his personal history with post-tonal music all the way back to boyhood. Several chapters were dismissed as apologia. The book was said to claim that serial music had never differed in its aims from any other kind of music, certainly not a claim advanced by my introduction, where I stated that "modernist music is the most conflicted that we have. More than any other kind of music, except maybe for rock 'n' roll, it offers each listener a unique, volatile, high-stakes dialectic of inseparable pleasure and pain, reward and risk." Amy Bauer and Jeremy Tambling invoked schizophrenia in their essays as a non-pathological parallel to this kind of conflicted aesthetic and artistic sensibility, and thereby pointed out the arationality of "rationalist" modernism, but they were interpreted as saying that modernist music and its practitioners are mentally ill. The list of astonishing misreadings goes on, some readers jerking their knees to the point of dislocation.

I would like to lay out some of the book's more important conclusions here, less out of didacticism or indignation with reviews than the conviction that a book is less a thing than a process, that it has a necessary pre-history and post-history. So if the post-history of The Pleasure of Modernist Music started with its readers and reviewers, it will continue here. I take the following statements to be indisputable, even self-evident enough that they hardly seem worth propounding in a book — so maybe there is a shred of truth to that review after all. As opposed to most accounts of modernist music, which begin — and often end — with the composer, why not begin here with the listener? Many claims of complexity in understanding modernist music are ill-conceived or simply beside the point, since people do not process musical "information" as if they were computers — how does one even go about defining musical "difficulty" or pointing out a musical-aesthetic disconnect?

Getting to know a new musical style is more like acquiring a literacy, and it's hard to see why a culture that prizes literacy and varieties of language should resist such acquaintance. As one corollary to this, the very notions of modernist music being edifying or otherwise good for you are obsolete, to put it mildly. The premises behind art appreciation are offshoots of modernist thinking, in fact — they propound the idea that hearing music is the necessary obverse of composing music, and that it needs to be heard the way it was composed. Such premises are more oriented to the notion of connecting with the composer's intention, of formatting our brains and sensibilities in order to process music on its creator's terms, as opposed to assimilating new styles and allowing our listening experiences to be self-transforming.

Modernist music is really more about immediate experience, less about knowledge and learning, than mainstream music of common practice. That often means, however, that the styles in question are awkward and disordered — as opposed to the more frequently touted, supposedly modernist qualities of complexity, organization, difficulty. And that awkwardness, that manner of resistance, represents the modernist critical gap between art and society that is not to be bridged or done away with, as "education" has tried to do, but allowed instead to condition the listener's experience. Such modernist gapped-ness has proved deeply evocative and provocative in film music, in fact. The theater is one place where the public, free from the onus of modernist discourse and "educated listening," has connected with modernist sounds, gestures, and even structures. Movies show the possibility, the inevitability even, of modernism's relevance once it has been separated from modernist ideology. The newness to what Schoenberg student and film composer Hanns Eisler called "the new musical resources" is in fact not an ideology, but an anti-ideology. As if to prove the point, modernist sounds and gestures proved very popular and influential in 1960s and 70s rock music, where said sounds and gestures were commonly called called "out there," "trippy," and "far out," descriptions that associated them with freedom, with out-ness rather than in-ness.

As for the much-discussed and -reviled notion of compositional techniques, two major composers among the book's contributors, the "postmodern" William Bolcom and the "modern" Pierre Boulez, both say that techniques like canon and 12-tone serialism are not so much instruments of conscious control as they are necessary tactics for liberating the possibilities of the unconscious. They serve to open up the creation to a higher number of possibilities, they take the creator into uncharted waters. As such, compositional techniques are described by Boulez as a simple extension of the act of writing music down: techniques that in and of themselves beneficially remove that which is written from its writer, that in a sense kill the author for the sake of enlivening the possibilities of authorship. The act of encoding an experience into script is the point where "disconnection occurs," according to Roland Barthes, the point where "the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, [and] writing begins."

* * *

Happily, in addition to the uncomprehending reviews and the predictably positive reception from modernism enthusiasts, some students, composers, music-lovers — younger people, mostly — have told me directly that The Pleasure of Modernist Music was an exciting, transformative experience for them. This shows some success in realizing the original intent of the book, which was to encourage people to reconsider assumptions, certain aesthetic-historic-musical clichés. It's an awful, tautological idea that those who disagree with you don't understand what you're trying to say, while those who do, do. But one always likes to imagine that if one's work stirs things up, said stir-up will not involve arguing over a book that one didn't write, but will lead to a productive debate over one's presumptions and bases.

And so I will end by joining a debate that no one has yet started: yes, The Pleasure of Modernist Music cultivates naivety, and the particular kind of idealistic naivety that it proposes can sometimes be a misleading, frustrating, and unproductive thing. (Martin Scherzinger felt liberated by the naivety that cover artist Yoshiaki Yoshinari showed in trying to reconcile the bleak abstract expressionist shapes of Motherwell with the pop-art colors of a Hockney or a Howard Hodgkin. Martin said he was thrilled by Yoshi's "smears of modern paint in post-truthful times!") But I don't think naivety can ever be dangerous in a homicidal sense — indeed, it seems the single mindset that could benefit the current climate of cynicism, myopia, and murderous greed. The "culture warriors" of current affairs could certainly use a healthy dose of it. And just as certainly, if The Pleasure of Modernist Music suffers from naivety, it is a naivety worth defending.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Conversations with Elliott Carter

If the Aldeburgh Festival began (almost) with a bang (see ‘Beside the Seaside’ below) it ended (almost) with the sound of a tiny cymbal - the final note of Elliott Carter’s Conversations which received its world premiere in Snape Maltings last Sunday. Performed by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group with Festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard on piano, Colin Currie on percussion and conductor Oliver Knussen on a rather precarious-looking chair, the seven-minute piece packs in a great deal within its short span. Luckily Knussen and his musicians played it twice on the night.

With two other recent pieces on the bill, Helen Grimes’ exuberant Everyone Sang (2010) and Charlotte Bray’s haunting violin concerto, Caught in Treetops (2010), it was an evening (indeed a weekend) for new music at the Festival. One hopes that Carter would have felt in good company. In 1994, in a piece reprinted in his Substance of Things Heard, Paul Griffiths wrote:

You do not have to be eighty-five years old to feel marooned in the past while time races on, but you probably have to be that age - and specifically to be Elliott Carter - to have the reverse feeling of desertion by time’s skidding hurriedly backwards from a point you thought was not only yours but everyone’s. At a public interview before the world premiere in Chicago of his newest orchestral work, Partita, Carter reacted passionately to a question about the future. How could he have any certain hope for his music, he said, when the last decade had seen a rush of young composers - by whom he probably meant anyone under seventy or so - ‘writing like Brahms, and doing it badly’? His tone was regretful, bewildered, but not bitter: he has too much gaiety of mind ever to turn sour - or indeed, ever to write like Brahms. We therefore have the paradox of an aged composer producing some of the most exhilarating music around, and doing so with majestic accomplishment (if that does not seem too settled a term for this athlete of the mind) in his new piece.

But perhaps the youthfulness is not so paradoxical; maybe only the old, in these jaded times, have their innocence intact, and stay able to be surprised by immediate sensory impressions, as Carter is evidently surprised and delighted by sounds. Simplicity and directness have always been as much his blessings as the vaunted ‘complexity’. (Why should this always be introduced as a problem? Who complains of the complexity of a forest?) Indeed, the abundance, to give it an apter name, comes out of a simple certainty about the nature of a composer’s task… [p.22]

Listening to Conversation on Sunday evening - how the piano often seemed primarily percussive and the percussion instruments, especially the vibraphone, took on the more melodic role expected of the piano - we were reminded of a paragraph in Felix Meyer and Anne Shreffler’s ‘centennial portrait’ of Carter:

Carter has drawn on existing traditions for key points of his creative process and his artistic philosophy, preferring to prolong and rejuvenate them rather than call them into question. This applies to his preservation of the idea of a self-contained work of art, set down in writing with maximum precision, and to his focus on working with conventional tonal material (for example, precluding electronic sounds and largely avoiding experimental performance techniques on conventional instruments). It applies equally to his understanding of the role of the performer, whom he employs primarily as an interpreter of his ideas and not, as in aleatoric music, as a ‘co-author.’ And finally it is no less applicable, at least in intention, to his understanding of listeners: although Carter has often said that he never thinks of the audience while composing, but only of the performers, his efforts to make the musical events audible, and his penchant for casting his musical discourse in quasi dramatic roles, doubtless spring from a desire to make statements of maximum concision and urgency and to communicate them to his listeners. [Elliott Carter: A Centennial Portrait in Letters and Documents, pp.16-17]

Let’s hear finally from Elliott Carter himself, as quoted in Bálint Varga’s essential new book, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers:

Each of my works is an adventure into a new conceptual, expressive, and musical domain which I have not yet explored. Their style is not something consciously thought about, but is a reflection of the expressive and musical intention. To work out a series of stylistic devices and then use them as formulae bores me as a prospect and it bores me in others who do it. Self-repetition is to me a sign of fatigue. [p.43]

In a 1985 postscript to Varga, Carter wrote: ‘The plan of your proposed book seems interesting and I hope you have the best of luck with it. It is courageous of you to include something about an American composer—for all of us have had a very hard time penetrating European indifference to our work.’ There was certainly no indifference on Sunday evening, as rapturous applause followed that delicate cymbal note in the closing minutes of the 64th Aldeburgh Festival.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Beside the Seaside

The 64th Aldeburgh Festival opened last Friday with a bang. Several, actually - many from the gongs and tam tams in Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle. The second half of this thrilling concert was given over to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, with an ailing Magdalena Kozena nevertheless giving a superb performance right down to the closings Ewigs. Such is the variety of the Festival programme, even after this big opening number there will be much more to enjoy over the coming weeks.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology is as essential an accompaniment as the highly-collectable Festival programme book. This remarkable collection of prose, poetry and images of Aldeburgh and the Suffolk coast has, at its heart, the Aldeburgh Festival in Benjamin Britten’s time and beyond. We celebrate both the Festival and the Anthology with excerpts from Steven Isserlis’ contribution to the latter, appropriately titled ‘Aldeburgh: A Magical Festival’:

My first performance at Aldeburgh was as part of a short masterclass seminar given by the distinguished Danish cellist Erling Blondal Bengtsson. I remember playing the Prelude of Bach’s fifth suite at the end-of-course student concert; about ten minutes after I’d finished, Britten arrived. So alas, I just missed my only chance to play to him. I did, however, get to play Bach to Imogen Holst, who was a friend of my teacher, Jane Cowan. As a result of that, I became friends with ‘Imo’ (well, if a rather bumptious teenager and a distinguished eccentric in her late sixties can be called friends), and she invited me to play her lovely piece for solo cello, The Fall of the Leaf, at a concert that marked her seventieth birthday in 1977. (I received my first-ever national review for that, the Telegraph graciously describing me as ‘the talented Roger Isserlis’.) Later, she invited me back to the festival to give the first performance for many years of her father’s only work for cello, Invocation. So my early memories of Aldeburgh are very much bound up with her. I really don’t think that a character like Imo’s could exist now. I remember her speeches to audiences: bending from the waist down, she would inform them, in the sort of voice now heard only in nursery schools, that they were about to have a ‘lovely, lovely time’. They would sit there meekly, putty in her hands.

At the concert in which I played The Fall of the Leaf, Peter Pears sang songs by Quilter and his contemporaries, with Roger Vignoles at the piano. I listened backstage and was bowled over by the performance; when they came offstage, I was ready for them. ‘That’s the best performance I’ve ever heard of British music!’ I gushed. Peter Pears looked at me a little strangely, as well he might; to him, having introduced so many of the greatest works ever written by a British composer, it must have sounded very foolish. Well, it was a silly thing to say; but I was young…

Another striking memory is from 1974, when Rostropovich was finally allowed out of the Soviet Union and was able to give the premiere of Britten’s Third Suite for solo cello, which had been written for him some years earlier. Again, Britten was sitting in the box; I remember thinking how frail he looked – but he was still a strong presence. We knew that we were listening to history in the making. Since then, I have performed that same Suite (the only one of the three that I play) several times at the Maltings; on each occasion, I have glanced towards the darkened box and imagined that Britten’s ghost was sitting there. It is quite an eerie feeling!

As I think of Aldeburgh and Snape, other memories come tumbling into my brain: the sight of Joyce Grenfell striding into a concert, seemingly oblivious to the excitement she was stirring up among her fellow audience members; Peter Pears and Murray Perahia getting to the very heart of Schumann’s Dichterliebe; Olly Knussen’s torso heaving with enjoyment of a somewhat risqué joke, with his co-director Steuart Bedford sitting with cocked head and knitted eyebrows, doing his good-natured best to understand it; my friend the pianist Paul Coker watching with amused concern a temper tantrum of mine backstage including (I’m ashamed to admit) some kicking of a dressing-room wall, when I felt my cello hadn’t been speaking properly during the first half of a recital; my mother attending a Bach recital I gave in the beautiful Blythburgh church, shortly before she died; Stephen Hough being thrilled by the sound of Britten’s piano, kept at the Red House; and so on. Variety has always been a hallmark of the festival and its associated activities, every visit offering a new and different experience.

The New Aldeburgh Anthology, edited by Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie, is available in paperback, hardback and a limited edition. More books on Benjamin Britten, music associated with Aldeburgh and the history of Suffolk may be found here.

Pronunciation note: Aldeburgh almost rhymes with Marlboro rather than Nuremberg.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Selling Serialism

Luigi Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to work within the twelve-tone system, and is considered one of Italy's most important composers of the twentieth century. As Brian Alegant writes below and in his recent book, The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola, the emotion in Dallapiccola’s music makes his version of twelve tone an exciting place to start for anyone who thinks they won’t enjoy it.

Anyone who has had to teach twelve-tone music knows that it is a “hard sell.” Having taught music majors for nearly a generation, I can say without hesitation that no other genre of classical music inspires such a hostile reaction as serialism. I have seen and heard students, performers, and even critics denigrate it as abstract, tortured, inhuman, and more about numbers than music.

And yet, most scholars would agree that twelve-tone composition is among the most important musical developments of the twentieth century. Even a partial list of composers who experimented with—or fully embraced—serialism is staggering: Babbitt, Barber, Bartok, Berg, Boulez, Britten, Carter, Crawford, Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Mamlock, Martino, Mead, Morris, Nono, Perle, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Sessions, Schnittke, Skalkattos, Stockhausen, Stravinsky, Webern, and Wuorinen, among many others. And most scholars would also agree that Luigi Dallapiccola (1904–75) is among the most accomplished and admired serial composers. His output includes ballets, choral music, concertos, film scores, piano pieces, song cycles, orchestral pieces, and operas. Dallapiccola enjoyed international fame as a lecturer, teacher, and author, and he was a member of the national academies of arts in the U.S., France, and England.

I have been entranced by Dallapiccola’s music ever since I heard David Burge play the Quaderno musicale di Annalibera. I have been listening to his music ever since with increasing appreciation and admiration, and I use his works to introduce twelve-tone to my students (with overwhelmingly positive results).

The scholarly literature on Dallapiccola is vast, and comprises a host of books and monographs, countless articles, and an ever-growing number of dissertations and theses. As a result, we know quite a bit about his oeuvre: namely, his predilection for self-quotation and symbolism, his fondness for intricate counterpoint and systematic designs; his penchant for languages and text setting; his stylistic eclecticism; and his appropriation of Anton Webern’s techniques. And yet many facets of Dallapiccola’s music await further explanation, chief among them a gradual but inexorable absorption of Arnold Schoenberg’s techniques.

In simplest terms, this book does not ask why Dallapiccola composed twelve-tone music, but, rather, how. It examines his repertory through a technical lens and traces the evolution of his praxis over a thirty-year period. In so doing, it highlights facets of his music that have not been previously disclosed, and sheds light on compositions that have been virtually ignored. Ultimately, it aims to complement the existing research in order to understand more fully his technique and his language.

This book attempts in several ways to fill in some of the lacunae in the state of Dallapiccola research: it sheds light on several twelve-tone works of high quality that have been virtually ignored; it discusses these works in depth, so as to help readers understand them analytically and engage with them aurally; it builds upon recent developments in the post-tonal theory by Allen Forte, David Lewin, Andrew Mead, Robert Morris, Joseph Straus, and myself; it documents the composer’s seemingly limitless invention and his extraordinary skill and delight in text setting; and, most of all, it endeavors to continue the conversation on this important composer and his serial compositions, whose enchantments and challenges are so richly rewarding.

The Twelve-Tone Music of Luigi Dallapiccola by Brian Alegant is published by the University of Rochester Press. Anyone interested in the life and work of Dallapiccola should also seek out another Rochester publication, The Music of Luigi Dallapiccola by Raymond Fearn, which is available in paperback from your favourite bookseller.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Good Music for a Free People

During the revolutions of 1848 two dozen members of an orchestra left Berlin for America to bring their music to new audiences. With their repertory of symphonies, opera selections and social dances they helped shape an audience for orchestral music at a seminal time in the history of the public concert. In her new book, Good Music for a Free People, Nancy Newman looks at the history of the Germania Musical Society, as they called themselves, and their effect on their adopted land. In this piece, written specially for the Stave, the author describes how she came across the orchestra and their fascinating story.

My first encounter with the Germania Musical Society was through Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Lawrence Levine’s provocative book had ignited a debate across disciplines about the historical relationship between so-called classical and popular music, a subject that interested me deeply. The Germania Musical Society makes a brief appearance for having played a pivotal role in the emergence of the symphony orchestra as a regular feature of American musical life. Its members were a group of young Berlin musicians who immigrated to the United States in 1848 and presented nearly nine hundred concerts to approximately one million listeners over the next six years.

Although it’s widely acknowledged that German immigrants had a profound effect on American musical practices, what intrigued me was Levine’s characterization of this particular group’s motivations. The orchestra members wanted “to further in the hearts of this politically free people the love of the fine art of music through performance of masterpieces of the greatest German composers”? Why would their listeners’ freedom have mattered? What did political liberty have to do with appreciation of the foremost classical compositions during “the century of artistic autonomy,” as Carl Dahlhaus described it? The relationship between absolute music and political thought was also of on-going interest, and the Germania Musical Society offered a new perspective on this complicated topic.

Following Levine’s trail led me to Skizzen aus dem Leben der Musik-Gesellschaft Germania, a brief memoir by Henry Albrecht, viola and clarinet player for the orchestra. This little-known account raised more questions than it answered. For example, Albrecht describes the members’ departure during the 1848 Revolutions in terms of their adversarial relationship to patronage. The prevailing system in Europe did not produce ideal musical results because it encouraged currying favor. Although noble courts were musically sophisticated and employed “virtuosi of the first rank,” nearly all the musicians sought to exhibit themselves through “exceptional mannerisms.” Albrecht claims that as a result, “a performance rarely appears totally flawless.”

The Germanians, in contrast, were willing to sacrifice their egos for the sake of the ensemble. “In the performance of orchestral works, every member realized that it was his holiest duty never to exhibit an exceptional, individual artistic mannerism.” To me, this articulated a fascinating paradox: by coming to the cultural wilderness of the United States, the Germanians sought the freedom not to show off. Even more surprising, they gave their desire for an alternative to patronage a form that was explicitly political. Not only did they seek an environment that was democratic, but they organized themselves accordingly. They drafted a constitution and agreed to share equitably in rewards and obligations. Aware that in leaving Berlin the orchestra became their sole means of support, the members pledged to place the welfare of the group above self-interest. A social-utopian motto, “One for all and all for one,” was adopted.

Good Music for a Free People makes Albrecht’s fascinating memoir available in English in its entirety for the first time. It also chronicles the orchestra’s travels to the major cities and small towns of the Eastern seaboard, west to the Mississippi, and to southeastern Canada. The ensemble offered Americans first and repeat hearings of works by major composers—especially Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Wagner. They familiarized listeners with current opera repertory by playing overtures and excerpts by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Auber, and Verdi. The Germanians performed with many of the era’s traveling virtuosi, including singers Jenny Lind, Henriette Sontag, and Teresa Parodi; violinists Ole Bull, Camilla Urso, and Miska Hauser; and pianists Alfred Jaëll and Otto Dresel.

At the same time that they helped forge a “classical” canon, the Germanians varied their programs with lighter genres such as polkas, waltzes, and potpourris. A good number of these works were original compositions by members, especially conductors Carl Bergmann (who later conducted the New York Philharmonic) and Carl Lenschow. The diversity and eclecticism of the Germania’s repertory had not been explored previously, however. I analyze how their programs changed over time in response to audiences in Baltimore, Boston, and other cities. During the orchestra’s final year, debates over whether they should segregate their repertory into lighter and more demanding concerts were aired in Dwight’s Journal. The controversy affords unique insights into contemporary attitudes toward the social significance of the public concert as a place where heterogeneous audiences gathered. Ultimately, the Germanians’ manipulation of their repertory reflects a struggle to define the semiotic arena of the arts and leisure by those who served it.

Much of Good Music for a Free People is concerned with events of the 1840s, a remarkable decade in transatlantic history. The Germanians were part of a great movement of Europeans, dislodged by economic and political upheaval, to the New World. German-speaking immigrants became known as “Forty-Eighters,” so named for the Revolutions of that year. The merging of their diverse and often innovative practices with the dominant culture would have a deep impact on many areas of American life.

The 1840s also saw experimental forms of music-making by “private orchestras,” modeled after the touring ensemble of Johann Strauss, and in “promenade concerts” in Paris and London. In these forums, audiences for orchestral music grew from a few hundred to several thousand enjoying “mixed repertory” concerts indoors and out. Such democratization of musical experience helped solidify the middle class’s consciousness of itself. These first truly “popular” musical events led to the realization that the same processes of commodification and mass mediation—sheet music production, instrument sales, and journalism—worked equally well for both serious and lighter genres. And the image of the United States as a place where musicians operated exclusively within a market economy increasingly tempted individuals and ensembles to make the dangerous Atlantic crossing. The Germanians’ origin as a private orchestra situates it within a formative stage of the “culture industry,” the Frankfurt School’s term for the institutions and practices that shape the commodification of art.

In The Dialectical Imagination, Martin Jay posits that the intellectual ferment of the 1840s make it “the most extraordinary decade” of the nineteenth century. For the first time, abstract German philosophical thought began to be applied to social and political matters. Social utopians Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Étienne Cabet had embarked on a similar path, and their adherents pursued the implications of their systems in France and abroad. Music critic John Sullivan Dwight, for example, lived in the Fourierist community Brook Farm on the outskirts of Boston. Before he left Berlin, Albrecht read Cabet’s utopian novel, Voyage en Icarie. Shortly after the orchestra disbanded, he went to live in Cabet’s model community in Nauvoo, Illinois. The ideology of “Icarian communism” played an important role in shaping Albrecht’s idealized view—his utopian vision—of the Germanians’ attempt at self-determination.

In many ways, we are still living with the ramifications of musical, cultural, social, and political developments that occurred during the 1840s. It is my hope that the Germania Musical Society’s extraordinary story will shine new light on the possibilities unleashed during that eventful decade.

Good Music for a Free People by Nancy Newman is available now from your favourite bookseller. Excerpts will follow over the coming weeks in this blog.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Words and Music

Advance copies of Bálint Varga’s Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers have just arrived, and what a remarkable publication it is. Birtwistle, Boulez, Cage, Carter, Henze, Kurtág, Ligeti, Nono, Reich, Tippett and Xenakis are just a few of the artists who agreed to discuss their music and their influences. In this post we extract a few choice morsels but urge you to seek out a copy in your favourite bookshop, as we are unable to reproduce the compelling flow of conversation and ideas within the confines of a blog post.

Gunther Schuller

To get back to Darmstadt: in the early fifties there came about an alliance between the German radio stations, composers, publishers, modern music journals, and festivals. Radios, as you know, are subsidized by the state and can broadcast new music without any great risk. A political/business linkup developed: a festival premiered a new work, it was recorded or taped by a radio station, and then the tape was broadcast throughout Europe. And everybody became richer and more famous. As a result of a terrific publicity machinery, everything was made to sound bigger and better than it really was. That is how lesser composers, like Pousseur or Kagel, became touted as “great” composers. We were told in Darmstadt that they and Boulez and Stockhausen were the masters of our time, and we should all compose like them.

There were three composers in Darmstadt in those early years who thought this was all pretty silly: Alexander Goehr, Harrison Birtwistle, and me. We were young and fairly cocky, and didn’t necessarily swallow Stockhausen’s line. I am proud of that. In the end—around 1957—I left Darmstadt, never to return.

Pierre Schaeffer

I am going to tell you why, at a particular moment in my life, I embarked on an adventure which I called concrete music.

I am not a composer. I have a degree in engineering but I have always regarded writing as my calling. As for my profession: I was one of the pioneers of broadcasting. I set up an experimental studio during the German occupation (today, they would call it an atelier) with the aim of developing the bases of radio art. Is it possible to create art devoid of the visual aspect? Is blind art viable?

Those were great years even though we had to work clandestinely during the occupation. We also participated in preparing the liberation of Paris. The first broadcasts went on the air a few days before the withdrawal of the Germans: it was rather a perilous undertaking.

It was after the war that the development of radio art really got under way. We wanted to find out all the possibilities inherent in this genre based only on text, background noise, and music—a genre that freed the imagination. Logically enough, I attempted on one occasion to create an experimental work in which I set out to explore at what point background sound, the condensing of noise turns into music. (In other words, musique concrete was the outcome of an accident, just as most other innovations. One stumbles on something one was not looking for.)

Toru Takemitsu

The pieces I wrote during the past several years have had a great deal to do with water. I love the sea. It has many faces. Numerous currents are whirling in it, each with a tempo, a color, and a temperature of its own. This phenomenon reminds me of the structure of music.

Twenty-five years ago when I started composing, I carried out concrete musical experiments with water. During a visit to France I was surprised to find that Pierre Schaeffer was working in the same direction. In my Water Music (1960) I use the sound of dripping water. I collected material from rivers, wells, and the sea and in the process of concentrating my attention on these sonorities, I grew fond of water.

Nature is important for my music in other ways as well. All four seasons are beautiful in Japan. I live on the shore of a lake and forty thousand cherry trees blossom in the neighborhood. Still, I prefer the autumn when trees, the grass—nature as a whole—change from day to day. One cannot catch the actual moment of change, only its result is tangible. It is a phenomenon that is of interest for me also as a composer.

Iannis Xenakis

Metastasis, that starting point of my life as a composer, was inspired not by music but rather by the impression gained during the Nazi occupation of Greece. The Germans tried to take Greek workers to the Third Reich — and we staged huge demonstrations against this and managed to prevent it. I listened to the sound of the masses marching toward the center of Athens, the shouting of slogans and then, when they came upon Nazi tanks, the intermittent shooting of the machine guns, the chaos. I shall never forget the transformation of the regular, rhythmic noise of a hundred thousand people into some fantastic disorder . . . I would never have thought that one day all that would surface again and become music: Metastasis.

I composed it in 1953–54 and called it a starting point because that was when I introduced into music the notion of mass . . . Almost everybody in the orchestra is a soloist, I used complete divisi in the strings which play large masses of pizzicati and glissandi. In other words, I do not use the term “mass” in a sociological sense.

Another experience of my youth dates from the time immediately preceding the war. I used to make outings to the countryside near Athens. I would take my bicycle, select a spot to erect my tent and listen to the sounds of nature. Crickets, for instance: their chirping was coming from every direction and was changing all the time. Those are also mass sounds, you see? But I also liked listening to the wind and the sea or the rain as it was lashing at the side of the tent.

Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers by Bálint András Varga is published by the University of Rochester Press and will be available soon from all good booksellers.

The image at the head of this post is taken from the book. The drawing, by Johannes Maria Staud, was made 'at the time of preparing the score of my opera Berenice in 2003/4.'