Monday, 28 February 2011

Beecham's Salome

Thomas Beecham had intended that his first Covent Garden season should open in February 1910 with what was bound to be a sure-fire sensation, the British premiere of Richard Strauss's Salome. There was a problem, however. The Lord Chamberlain's office, responsible for stage censorship in Britain since 1737, refused to grant it a performing license. Oscar Wilde's play of the same name, on which Strauss's libretto was based, had been similarly banned twenty-eight years earlier, on the grounds that it portrayed on stage the New Testament figure of St John the Baptist, and the current Lord Chamberlain (Earl Spencer, great-grandfather of Princess Diana) was not prepared to change his mind on the matter. Beecham opened his season with Elektra instead, but continued to do battle over Salome with the Lord Chamberlain who, nine months later, at last gave in, but at a price.

The Baptist was to be allowed back into the opera, though he was to be called, not Jokanaan or John, but ‘a Prophet’, while in the final scene the executioner was to hand Salome a blood-stained sword, rather than the saint’s head on a silver charger. Salome’s hymn to the head was to be bowdlerised and all Biblical allusions in the text eliminated. The action was to be moved from Judea to Greece and the Five Jews were to become Five Learned Men. For the sake of getting Salome produced in London at last, Strauss accepted the changes.

The opera was licensed on 1 December, one week before the opening. Tickets for its opening night sold out within eighty-five minutes of the box-office opening, and before long touts were offering seats at more than double their face value. During the final dress rehearsal Salome, the lissom Finnish soprano Aïno Ackté, found that the ‘blood’ dripping from the sword was staining her fingers and, using ‘some very drastic words in French’, wiped it off on the cloak of the nearest supernumerary. It was not a problem she had encountered in Germany, where she had held the charger bearing the head.

Beecham stopped the rehearsal and in the hope of finding a solution ordered one of his staff to make an urgent telephone call to the Lord Chamberlain's office. After a long wait the shirt-sleeved stage manager rushed to the front of the stage and knelt before Beecham, who was waiting in the orchestra pit. ‘We can use a tray instead of a sword’, he shouted, ‘so long as there is no head on it.’ The news was greeted with cheers. Comedy had finally turned into farce.

Beecham was tireless. The dress rehearsal took place in the afternoon. In the morning he had taken a three-hour rehearsal for his first concert for the Philharmonic Society, which he conducted that same evening at Queen’s Hall. The concert came at an awkward moment, but he had postponed it once already, and for the sake of future relations with the society he could hardly delay it again. It was not the only concert he conducted during the final week of Salome rehearsals.

Three nights earlier he had conducted a programme of Wagner excerpts with his orchestra at the Opera House; and on the evening before that had given a concert of eighteenth-century operatic music at the Aeolian Hall in Bond Street, at which Maggie Teyte sang arias by Méhul, Grétry, Paisiello, Isouard, Monsigny and Dalayrac. Teyte claimed to friends that she had an affair with Beecham, but, if true, it seems it was a brief one.

Not surprisingly, given the enormous amount of pre-publicity it had received, the first night of Salome on 8 December was a succès fou, though several reviewers found the opera less musically satisfying than Elektra (Ernest Newman took the opposite view.) The Lord Chamberlain’s office came in for a good deal of criticism. ‘Truly the ways of the Censorship are past finding out’, wrote the Times critic, who wondered how anybody in the audience could possibly have been expected to miss ‘the very striking coincidences’ between the fate of the Prophet and that of John the Baptist. ‘Of what avail was it’, asked the Sunday Times, ‘that Salome had to say “Ich will dir folgen” [“I want to follow you”] instead of “Ich will deinen Mund küssen” [“I want to kiss your mouth”], when she expressed by every fibre of her being the very abandon of amorous desire?’

In the heat of the performance some of the textual alterations were forgotten by the singers, though if these were noticed by the members of the Lord Chamberlain’s staff who were present, none of them mentioned it. Either they did not speak German or they chose to adopt a diplomatic silence.

By all accounts Ackté’s performance in the title-role was remarkable. She expressed emotion ‘not only by glance and gesture, but by sensuous curve of bodily movement’, said one critic, who added that although the music was ‘rather exacting’ for her (recordings suggest that the top of her voice was not her strongest point), she sang ‘skilfully’ and with ‘rare expressiveness’. It was noted with approval that, contrary to the practice in Germany, she performed the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ herself, rather than handing over the task to a double. Less appreciated was the silver tray, which, though it lacked a head, was filled with ‘gore’. Ackté found it ‘inartistic and rather revolting’ and, after the sixth of the ten performances, asked if it could not be covered with a cloth, so that ‘people may imagine what they want’. Company manager Archibald Archdeacon passed on Ackté’s request to the Lord Chamberlain's Comptroller, who replied that ‘Lord Spencer says “yes”, the tray can be covered with a cloth, only care must be taken not to build up a great heap in it which would look suggestive.’

So great was the ridicule poured on the Lord Chamberlain’s office for its part in the Salome affair that many imagined it could not be long before it was relieved of its licensing duties, but another fifty-eight years and two world wars were to pass before stage censorship in Britain, along with the Lord Chamberlain’s role in it, was finally abolished in 1968.

This post is adapted from Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music, the acclaimed biography of Britain’s greatest conductor by John Lucas. It has been reissued in paperback to coincide with the 50th anniversary in March 2011 of Beecham’s death. ‘This is the best biography of a musician I have read for a very long time,’ said the International Record Review of the hardcover, while Classical Music claimed that this ‘thorough, exhaustive and often highly amusing biography Beecham as one of the foremost musical personalities of the last hundred years.’ The book is available now in paperback from all good booksellers.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

On Music and Beauty by Markand Thakar

Part 1: A Visitor from Outer Space, Confused

Art is a vehicle for self-knowledge. Whoa, that’s heavy. With apologies, yes.

I sometimes imagine a discussion with a visitor from outer space.

Space Alien: What did you do last night?
Human Person: I went to a big box.
There were about 1500 people there. They turned off the lights, and in a corner
of the box some people made noise.
SA: EEW! How long did you have to do
HP: It took about two hours, and I wanted to do it.
SA: So they
must have paid you well?
HP: Actually, I paid a handsome sum.
(scratching its left nose) Hmmm. I have just one question.
HP: Yes...
SA: Why?

Why indeed!

I have never seen myself. Don’t get too smug — you’ve never seen yourself either. I’ve seen my face in a mirror, I’ve seen photographs of my face, I’ve seen my lower extremities, the backs of my lower legs, parts of my arms. I’ve never seen my back, my rear end, or parts of my arms. I’ve never seen the essence of my physical presence to the world: my eyes, my mouth, my nose, my ears.

My understanding of who I am is limited to the absence of what I am not. I know that I am not the table, the computer, the window, those trees. I am not the glass or the flowers. I am not the air or the smells. I am not the omelet, nor am I the taste of the omelet. I am not the death of my friend, nor am I the sadness. I am not the joke nor am I the humor. That thing that is missing from all the things I am not — that’s who I am. So the more defined, more present, more vivid to me are the things I am not, the better I understand my own being.

Ordinary understanding — or consciousness — is a three-part process: subject—mode of consciousness—object. If I see the Tower of London, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and seeing is the mode of consciousness. If I remember the tower, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and remembering is the mode of consciousness. If I imagine the tower, I am the subject, the tower is the object, and imagining is the mode of consciousness.

So here’s one answer to the “Why?”: we consume art because it helps to define us to ourselves. I read a novel; it has meaning for me to the extent that I relate the events in it to my own experiences of the world, it makes them more vivid, it heightens my awareness of the world external to me, and it brings my own essence into better relief. I see an opera or a play, or a Warhol Campbell’s Soup Can, I connect deeply with the loves, the losses, the joy, the sadness, the soup, and I have a more pronounced understanding of my loves, my losses, my joy and sadness, my soup. The external world is more vividly limned, what that world is not is in greater relief, and the “what-it-is-not” — me — is better defined.

Ah but visual art — and music — can do something else, something different, something — yes — BETTER!

Part 2: When is a Tree not a Tree?

When is a tree not a tree? Or, more precisely, in observing a tree, when am I not observing the tree?

Some 25 years ago I lived in an apartment in a rural area. Outside the apartment was a tree, a large one, with many branches. I saw the tree as I was coming and going, every day for two years. It was a tree. One day, though, leaving the apartment, I glanced up, and observed that tree. It was beautiful, and I was struck by it. And I was left with this nagging question: what was different about the tree when it provided an experience of beauty from when it was just there as part of my general observation of the world around me?

Kudos to you, honored reader, who has presumably made your way gamely through part 1 (and more kudos and sincere apologies if you remember it!), but we return to the structure of consciousness of our ordinary experience, which is: subject — mode of consciousness — object. I (subject) see (mode of consciousness) the tree (object). The experience of beauty is different from that of ordinary experience. In an experience of beauty, the object comes to me in such a way that I absorb it. It takes me over. I lose myself in the object. And in “losing myself” in the object, in a very real sense I become that object. There is no longer a subject or an object, what remains is just consciousness.

So what was different about the tree? Nothing. What was different was me: my openness to the possibility of losing myself in that visual image. Perhaps it was the incipient sunset in the background. Perhaps I approached it in a pensive moment of inner peace. Nonetheless, the visual image of that tree enabled me to absorb it, become it, and be moved. When the tree comes to me as beautiful, I am observing the tree but I am not observing it, because I am the tree.

Now this extraordinary experience couldn’t happen from just any old tree. That particular tree had numerous branches fanned out in a particularly gratifying shape. And the experience was fleeting, to be sure.

But there is an experience of beauty that is deep and profound: it is the one available from visual art, and from music. We open ourselves to the aesthetic object – the Rembrandt or the Picasso, the sublime performance of Mozart or Brahms. We focus on it, and it alone. We absorb it, it takes us over, we lose ourselves in it, we become it.

And in so doing it takes us to a magical place: ourselves. Our Selves. In this act of becoming the object, neither subject nor object participate in the conscious act. What remains is the very essence of our being, our consciousness.

Toward the end of his life Handel led a performance of Messiah. Afterward, legend has it, he was approached by a friend, who said, “Maestro, surely you have provided a great entertainment.” And he responded, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them, for I had hoped to make them better.”

Why music? We can know the very essence of our being, and we can be better.

This essay is adapted from the April and May Maestro’s Musings columns in Duluth Superior Magazine (reproduced by permission of the publisher). Markand Thakar’s book, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet: An Investigation into Musical Beauty is published by the University of Rochester Press and available from all good booksellers.

For the month of February 2011
readers of From Beyond the Stave can order Markand Thakar’s book at 25% discount from our website. Simply use the discount code HARPWEB25 during our secure checkout.

Or you can wait for the movie.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

‘To know a world of beauty…’

My first encounter with Grainger’s music - writes Penelope Thwaites, editor of The New Percy Grainger Companion - began not as a music student at Melbourne University, but in England in the 70’s, not long after my Wigmore Hall debut. The composer William L Reed said to me one day, “You’re an Australian – why don’t you play some Grainger?” I considered, and decided to include three folk-settings at the end of my next recital. I found them delightful, stimulating - and demanding. That, I learned, was a not unusual experience for those embarking on performing Grainger.

Fifty years after his death in New York on 20 February 1961, a fresh evaluation of Percy Grainger is due. This Australian-American composer and pianist who spent much of his youth in Germany and Britain and who revered the Scandinavian countries and their culture seems to have been born into a state of reaction against existing norms. The necessity to earn his living and support his invalid mother took him to the heart of the British establishment as a society pianist, when his own genes were drawing him inexorably towards the music of ordinary people – folk music. His quenchless curiosity led him to experiment with new instruments to introduce into the lush panoply of Edwardian orchestral writing – an orchestra for which he wrote superbly. He envisaged a kind of music that would dispense with regular time signatures and conventional pitch, music that would move as freely as the sounds of nature.

I have just come from rehearsing a trio of Grainger songs. Grainger’s pianist is a full partner to the singer and together, time and again, two artists are called upon to create a scene, a drama , more often than not with an undercurrent of sadness. The Sprig of Thyme tells the old story of the young woman betrayed by the disappearing lover, but this girl has spirit, and hopes for better things. The music reflects all that, with a kind of gaiety that is far more touching than a display of self-pity. Absolutely characteristic in the song is Grainger’s harmony, now poignant, now twisting the knife in the wound. It all happens in three minutes – a masterpiece.

Benjamin Britten recognised Grainger’s unique greatness in this field : “In the art of setting folk song, Grainger is my master”. Britten may have produced the greater volume of works, but neither he nor any other composer I know comes near Grainger’s strangely affecting mix of emotional earthiness enhanced by harmonic sophistication.

He wrote with passionate appreciation of the folk-singers who gave him their (often jealously guarded) tunes. Perhaps they sensed he was one of them? Grainger himself never mentioned, perhaps never knew, that his great-grandfather, Jacob Grainger (1796-1880) farmed in the south of County Durham, as did almost all of his (Jacob’s) family. Just one son moved to London in the 1840s and became a master tailor, and one of his family of ten left England to take a job in distant Australia as a draughtsman, later architect. That was Percy Grainger’s father.

Some 350 performers in eight concerts will take part in the Celebrating Grainger 2011 festival at Kings Place, London, from 17-19 February. They will traverse his choral and solo vocal music, woodwind, brass and string chamber works, with the Royal Artillery Band and Orchestra his superb writing for military band, a concert including Grainger’s non-western settings, multi-hand duo piano works, percussion ensembles, Theremins, experimental music machines, and a chance for audiences to sing Grainger’s music too. On the actual 50th anniversary of the composer’s death, Sunday 20 February, speakers and scholars from Australia, Canada, USA, Denmark, Germany, and the UK will gather at the British Library for a seminar entitled Percy Grainger for the 21st Century.

Grainger’s universalism is one of the most important themes in the book I have been privileged to edit The New Percy Grainger Companion – important not because Grainger solved every problem, and certainly not because his life was some kind of pageant of triumph. He struggled. But he did think more widely than many classically trained musicians of his time – or of this time – and because he thought so freshly about music, his provocative thoughts are stimulating.

At Kings Place on Saturday 19 February, we include a British premiere of his Thanksgiving Song. Ours must be a chamber version of a work written originally for full symphony orchestra and off-stage choir with instrumental ensemble. The first half of the piece is purely instrumental – a dreamy beginning leading to a frenzied apotheosis – then silence. The second half could not be more different. When it was premiered in 2003 in the spacious Adelaide Town Hall, the off-stage musicians were able to realise Grainger’s highly original (seemingly almost comical) idea of the endlessly repeated chorale fading very slowly into the distance, as the singers and accompanying group were transported on a trolley outside the periphery of the hall. Yet as they finally stood in the outer corridor singing ever more quietly, the doors were slowly closed and a pin-drop silence followed. For this magical effect in our restricted space on 19 February, Trinity College of Music has recorded that final section with their singers and instrumentalists, and that will provide our conclusion. The live performers will listen, along with the audience.

My hope is that audiences will leave feeling altogether happier!

And now to continue my own practice...

The New Percy Grainger Companion edited by Penelope Thwaites is available now from all good booksellers and will be on sale at the events mentioned above. More on Percy Grainger can be found here and here. For tickets to the Kings Place concerts, please visit their website, and for the British Library symposium click here. Chandos Recordings Grainger Edition is self-recommending. The quotation that names this post is by Grainger and runs, in full, ‘To know a world of beauty and not to be able to spread the knowledge of it is agonising’.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Nielsen in the South

Danish composer Carl Nielsen (1865-1931) is arguably the most underrated composer of his generation, despite an ever-growing number of recordings and performances of his music. In a new book, Daniel Grimley offers a critical re-evaluation of his music and its rich artistic and literary contexts, drawing extensively on the newly completed Carl Nielsen Edition. Topics include the composer’s relationship with symbolism and fin de siècle decadence and his response to the Danish landscape. Running through the book is an engagement with the idea of musical modernism - a term which, for Nielsen, was fraught with anxiety and yet provided significant creative stimulus. In this excerpt, Grimley looks at the overture Helios. For anyone who might sympathise with the old joke that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, this is how it’s done:

The opening page of Nielsen’s concert overture Helios (1903) is one of the most magical dawn sequences in music. Long pedal notes in the lower strings suggest a seemingly infinite sense of musical time and space, of floating weightlessly in the musical ether: the pause over each second bar momentarily suspends the perception of regular clock time before the work has properly begun, so that the piece literally begins in a state of timelessness. The hairpin dynamics, rising almost imperceptibly from pianississimo and falling back again, reflect the vibrating amplitude of the bowed open string: it is as much a description of the sound object or ‘Klang’ as a performance direction.

The horn calls that then gradually rise above the bass pedal sound almost impossibly distant, gently arching upwards first through the octave and then to the flat seventh, as though sounding the upper partials of a single glowing harmonic spectrum. As this sound slowly echoes and peals, the resonance gaining strength through its waxing reiteration, the upper strings begin to weave a gently flowing quaver figure, gradually filling in the gaps between the widely spaced intervals of the horn calls and bass, so that the orchestral texture emerges as if from a clearing morning mist. As this slowly shifting curtain of sound grows, the harmonic palette also widens and enriches itself, the rocking fifth steps in the bass (a horizontalisation of the earlier vertical chord structures) followed eventually by the first chromatic descent (b. 30), tilting the music momentarily towards the flat side and casting aside the drowsy somnolent sevenths of the opening page.

The return to the opening white-note C major gains a greater sense of clarification or focus, prefiguring the arrival of the first fully fledged melodic statement, the striding chorale entry of the horns with a transfigured version of their opening call at b. 54, supported by a blaze of string tremolandos and organ-like woodwind writing. The final shadows of the night in which the piece figuratively began have melted away and the music surges irresistibly forwards to the start of the main section, an energetic Allegro ma non troppo in the bright, super-charged key of E major.

Formerly broadcast every 1 January by Danish Radio, Helios has gained a deeply symbolic place in Danish musical culture. It has become a ‘Morgensang’ (‘morning song’ or aubade), sounded optimistically at the threshold of each New Year. Yet the richly associative gestures with which the music begins invite a range of critical and historical interpretations. For example, the horn’s striding chorale belongs to a local tradition of Danish dawn hymns, a musical subgenre headed by Niels W. Gade’s setting of B. S. Ingemann’s ‘I Østen stiger Solen op’ (‘The sun rises in the east’) in his cantata Elverskud (1851–4), a pivotal reference work in the creation of a distinctively Danish musical romanticism in the mid-nineteenth century. The confident new dawn which Helios evokes, with its rising horn octaves and sonorous diatonicism, is at least in part a warm afterglow of this national romantic awakening, and also an affectionate tribute to Nielsen’s former teacher at the Danish Conservatory.

Yet the music delves even deeper into imaginary ideas of Danishness in its opening bars. The horn calls at the start evoke the sound of Lurs, curved Bronze Age brass instruments excavated (usually in pairs) from barrow mounds across Denmark and southern Sweden throughout the nineteenth century. They have discshaped bells that represent stylised sun symbols whose ritual function, it was believed, was to herald the passage into the afterlife. Pairs of Lurs were displayed in the Danish national museum, and in 1910 Nielsen even composed a Lur prelude as part of his incidental music for the Viking play Hagbarth og Signe, performed outside at Friluft Teatret in Dyrehaven (the open-air theatre at the deer park north of Copenhagen), one of his most atmospheric and evocative dramatic scores. Yet, as Svend Ravnkilde has revealed, Helios simultaneously evoked an even more startling archaeological discovery, now displayed in the antiquities collection at the National Museum.

In 1902, the year before composition of the overture, a ploughed field at Trundholm bog in Zealand unearthed a precious miniature model of a solvogn (sun chariot), a golden disc pulled by a stylised divine horse (equipped with spoked wheels) that was believed to represent the journey of the sun across the heavens: a metaphor, in the Bronze Age Nordic mind, for the course of human life and its relationship with the cosmos and the seasonal cycles of the natural world. The structure of Nielsen’s overture, waxing and waning from near silence to full strength and back to silence, traces the same circular trajectory as the imaginary path of the solvogn. Nielsen thus responded to this complex mythic notion of Danishness on different levels, both through the highly localised evocation of an antique Nordic sun cult as embodied in the archaeological treasures at the National museum, and also in its reimagining through the prism of the nineteenth-century national romantic imagination in Gade’s Elverskud.

Yet Helios also breaks out from such local associations and embraces a wider musical patrilineage. The musical representation of apparently organic, self-determined growth from a kernel cell points to a whole range of nineteenth- century evocations of nature – the opening of Wagner’s Rheingold is the most obvious and paradigmatic example. Such evocations conventionally serve as thresholds to an imaginary Arcadian landscape or enchanted nature realm, and signal displacement (or removal) from the modern world. Helios is similarly concerned with a sense of the mythic past, the temporal suspension and circularity of its opening bars a way of manipulating time so as to create the impression of reaching back into an imagined antiquity.

Yet its re-creation of a lost golden age serves a double function, casting expectation optimistically forwards towards the reattainment of previous greatness and cultural renewal. The music’s growth, evolution and fulfilment thus begin to gain a more pointed ideological focus. The chorale-like treatment of the morning song at b. 54, with its shades of the finale from Brahms’s First Symphony and the Academic Festival Overture, becomes the apotheosis of a broader Northern European cultural vision, a stylised synthesis of Hellenic and Nordic streams with elements of the early eighteenth-century German Baroque. The manner in which the music sheds the mythic Wagnerian gloom of the opening page for a brighter, leaner and more athletic musical discourse at the work’s heart reveals a great deal about Nielsen’s stylistic orientation.

The overture’s Hellenism becomes a musical realisation of Nietzsche’s decisive anti-Romantic turn and famous call for the ‘Mediterraneanisation of music’ in The Case of Wagner, promoted energetically in Copenhagen in the 1890s by Georg Brandes. The ritualistic dawn evoked by Helios’s opening pages thus gives way to a consciously modern, neo-classical, and ultimately comedic vision – its closest musical counterpart, in that sense, might be Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra, a work which likewise opens with a dramatic musical sunrise and unveils the birth of a new Nordic-Hellenic superman. Just as his First Symphony had sounded a dramatic modernist breakthrough in 1894, therefore, Nielsen’s Helios became a further threshold to a new expressive and musical domain, a gateway that is as much the symbolic adoption of a particular aesthetic tone or vision as the literal depiction of the sun rising above the wine-dark waters of the Aegean Sea.

Carl Nielsen and the Idea of Modernism by Daniel M Grimley is published by the Boydell Press and available from all good booksellers. Grimley's acclaimed book on Grieg is also available from the Boydell Press.