Giving thanks for music.

Yes, I know I have posted on Franz Schubert once or twice before, but I have a really good excuse to do so again. Indulge me, and I will then contain my love for this man’s prodigious output for a while.

Anyone tuning in to last night’s installment of Victoria on television may remember Victoria and Albert making a bit of a hash of a song at the end, with her at the piano. I could not discern the words being sung, but the music was Schubert’s. With over 600 songs to his name, I cannot, obviously, claim to have heard even a fraction of them. Let’s just say this is my favourite of the many I know.

Before I started these modest ramblings, I did post the song on Facebook, but I make no apologies for revisiting it. It’s not just the melody, which for Schubert was the end in itself, but the words by his friend, Franz von Schober, which makes this brief song such a gem.

An die Musik‘ (‘To music’), was Schubert’s hymn to music, written in 1817. It’s astonishing how much fervour and love for the art he can arouse in just a couple of minutes. Here is the text, with a translation:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

Schubert wrote over 1,000 pieces of music in his 31 years, and here’s an image of the part of the original for today’s piece. It’s just for solo voice and piano – imagine the labour involved transposing the sound in your head to paper.

Ian Bostridge (b 1964) gives a clear and sympathetic account of this simple message. Julius Drake (b 1959) provides an equally sensitive support at the piano. Lots of emotion and fervent gratitude here.

Do not underestimate the importance of the piano: people can often overlook its part, heaping all the praise on the singer. Someone once wrote that if you don’t understand the words in Schubert’s songs listen to the instrument and you will know the meaning well enough. Schubert would often accompany his singers, but shied way from praise, which was not in excessive supply during his life anyway: not until some 60-70 years later was the huge extent of his work unearthed. Thank goodness.

Few snippets better sum up my own feelings about music. The message endures. Abba would have their own version, Thank you for the music, about 160 years later. It needs no grand explanation, no words – of mine, at least – will never do it justice. Click image to hear why.


“Too many notes.”

Almost everyone will be familiar with those withering words, which were attributed to the Emperor Joseph II in the 1984 film, Amadeus, after hearing the first performance of Mozart’s opera, Il Seraglio.  

Aside from the frivolous, and quite ludicrous, nature of the observation, it did prompt me to reflect: if not too many notes, certainly very many.

We are now so used to the massive output and creativity of classical music over the last few hundred years that it can be easy to overlook the sheer labour involved in transcribing these mental sounds on to paper.

Think for a moment on the implications of no electricity in this context. No electronic keyboard with the luxury of a backspace (probably the most used button on my laptop) to delete or replace. No means of recording. In short everything, absolutely everything (including the lines for the music itself, giving us the word ‘score’) had to be done by hand. Nowadays you can sing a tune into any number of gizmos, and before you have gathered your breath with the next inspiration, you will have a beautifully produced manuscript, fully orchestrated and ready to go.

This is not to belittle the efforts of contemporary composers, merely to highlight the extraordinary achievements of their predecessors. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that music, – unlike, say, painting – relies almost solely on the hand of its creator. Yes, there are plenty of examples of composers or students finishing off works of their masters; but because you cannot ever hear what is going on in a musician’s head, nothing can have the authenticity of the originator. An artist can direct his followers much more easily.

Even an author or playwright is transferring one or two thoughts into just one thread, a sentence, a phrase.

This makes the feat of writing music down a monumental task. At one end, the solo instrument may present few problems; but imagine, at the other end of the scale, conveying the sound of a full opera, or a mass, with all its singers and every single instrument in an orchestra. It’s no wonder that so many fecund composers died young. Regardless of what they’d been suffering from, exhaustion must surely have played a part.

All those notes. All by hand. And for hundreds of years with a quill and ink.

I’ve no idea how many notes there are in this electrifying piece by Mendelssohn, his Rondo Capriccioso for piano, published in 1830, when the composer was just 21 (he would not reach 40). Lots in the closing half, that’s for sure. I’ve posted on this composer once before (his octet), and the more I listen to him, the more I realize how much joy I’ve been avoiding for so many years.

In its opening bars you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the introduction to a Schubert song, and it certainly does sing. The real action starts a couple of minutes in, with a thrilling presto, which professional pianists will secretly confide sounds harder to play than it is – which is why it is something of a showpiece.

The American pianist Murray Perahia (b 1947) is the performer here, a musician whose career has been intermittently interrupted by a hand injury, but as good an interpreter of the keyboard music of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Bach you will find. Some 40 years ago, I took a girl to see him perform a Mozart piano concerto in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. I wonder if she remembers…

Too many words. Over to the music.

Click below –

Mozart, “Look, mum – four hands!”

A quick glance at recent posts suggests my choice of music in the last weeks may have erred on the melancholy, if not introspective. Time to open the curtains and let in some sun.

Mozart wrote 23 concertos for piano and orchestra. They are filled with tunes which are sometimes impossible to get out of your head, but unlike nagging commercial jingles, I’m never too bothered if they linger. Number 10, probably written in 1779 when Wolfgang was all of 20, was composed for two pianos and is about as exuberant a piece as you will ever hear.

His older sister, Maria Anna, was every bit as talented as her gifted sibling and their pushy dad, Leopold, was at pains to advance both their talents at any opportunity. They would often perform together, so it is quite possible that Mozart wrote the concerto for that purpose. It’s unlikely, however, that such an occasion took place, because by 1779 Nanneri, as she was known, was of marriageable age, and it simply wasn’t done for ladies in that position to be cavorting their talents in public.

Image result for maria anna mozart

Leopold would have known this, which makes his helicopter-parent approach somewhat questionable. We do know that Mozart played it with one of his pupils a few years later (Josepha Barbara von Auernhammer, if you are setting the questions in your next pub quiz and want to silence the room).

The last of the three movements is a joyous Rondo. The unusual aspect of this work is that most of the dialogue is concentrated between the two pianos, rather than between solo instrument and orchestra, as was the norm. The piece is now some 240 years old and the performers would have been playing under candlelight, possibly on instruments not unlike this –

Contrast this with today’s clip, here played by the late Sir Georg ‘Screaming Skull’ Solti and Daniel Barenboim. The pianos are vast, and it is hard not to imagine how the mischievous Mozart  would have reveled in laying his hands on one. Solti also conducts the orchestra, he just can’t resist meddling, but in truth his direction is totally unnecessary for this work: its role is no more than supportive in a teasing, lyrical and lively conversation between the two Steinways.

The key is Eb flat major, a point only worth observing because it is the same key that Beethoven later scored his Emperor Piano Concerto and Eroica symphony, both of them uplifting and life-affirming works: there are moments when Solti almost seems to be playing Beethoven, while Barenboim stays rooted to the playfulness and charm of Mozart.

The mingling of the soloists is exquisite, shut your eyes and you can barely separate them. Unbridled joy.

Click here –


“Summer’s lease”…can be as long as you wish

When do you accept that summer is over?

In July a friend announced the end of summer at the conclusion of Wimbledon, which I thought was a tad previous. A close second was another who asserted the same on the occasion of the first night of the Proms, the very date which has, for me, always given summer’s lease an extension.

The last Bank Holiday weekend, now upon us? The 1st September? The final Test Match? The – it always seems – early return of Match of the Day (while cricket is still on our screens)? The last tennis Grand Slam tournament? I know that I cling to the season for as long as I can, indulging fully in anything I can associate with summer in my determination to refuse its passing.

As  I do today in my choice of music. The American composer George Gershwin lived just 38 years (1898-1937), but in that brief period made a remarkable impact on both classical music and the future of popular music – in fact, I wonder whether the development of modern popular music could ever have unfolded without Gershwin. He was a prolific songwriter and gifted tunesmith, some would say America’s answer to Schubert.

Unlike Schubert, he was a good-looking man and in much demand from the ladies. Little wonder he didn’t see the point in marrying.

Nowadays his reputation tends to be limited to being the composer of Rhapsody in Blue, but that is to miss out on a huge and highly original output. His real legacy is that he achieved the successful crossover between the Broadway musical and opera in the most popular American opera of all, Porgy and Bess. 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, was hardly the perfect year for its first performance, and it was a commercial disaster.

Now, largely thanks to a 1986 production at Glyndebourne, it is firmly established in the operatic repertoire. It is riddled with unforgettable melodies, and in the spirit of today’s post, give yourself a few minutes to bask in Summertime. 

The tune will be known to almost everyone, but you won’t hear it sung better than by the American soprano Leontyne Price (born 1927). Don’t be put off by the slightly brash introduction, wait for her voice and you will be hooked: she had a wonderful, almost raunchy, voice which leant itself as comfortably to Verdi, as it does to Puccini or Mozart. This smokey rendition of over 50 years ago has few, if any equals.

In a couple of weeks the Royal Albert Hall will be host to the Last Night of the Proms. The place will be heaving with enthusiasts from nations all around the globe, frantically waving all manner of flags. Whether I’m listening or not, I will be mentally hoisting a white flag in reluctant acknowledgement that, for me, this is the occasion which brings down the curtain on summer 2017.

Until then, I’m holding on with the help of Price. I may even play this in December to remind me that summer will return.

Click image –

“The voice of an angel.”

If ever there was an over-used, even lazy, accolade applied to a great singer, “The voice of an angel” is surely it.

What makes this attempt at the highest possible praise even more meaningless is that I’d be surprised, although obviously very excited, if there is anyone who has the authority to make such an assertion.

The legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini (1876-1957), was so widely lauded in his craft that he may have felt he’d acquired God-like status: so when he used the term about the Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004), most would have sat up and assumed he knew what he was talking about. She had one of the most beautiful voices of the twentieth century – and, perhaps unusually during her prime, she was no slouch when it came to acting.

Such a combination meant that the press were quick to make comparisons between her and Maria Callas, with whom she is supposed to have had a life-long rivalry. There was something in that, no doubt, but I suspect that if both were alive today, they would say that this was a myth which suited both of them nicely, thank you. Competition between two parties in any field rarely does either side much harm.

Tempting as it may be, it is shallow to state “I’m in the Callas camp” or “Tebaldi for me” – their voices, although in the same range, were very different. I posted on the dramatic, sometimes imperfect, voice of Callas last year in one of her most defining roles, Tosca, so now it is time to indulge in the voice of Tebaldi.

What’s the first thing that enters your head at the mention of the name Bellini?

I won’t believe you if it wasn’t ‘Cocktail’.

Maybe art-lovers will recall the fifteenth century painter, whose “Mother and Child” is still my favourite picture in London’s National Gallery.

Image result for bellini mother and child

But Vincenzo Bellini (1801-35) would be the right answer here, a Sicilian composer whose short life left an operatic output which is right at the heart of the repertoire today. Whether your part in one of his operas was a gooddie or a baddie, you were always assured of the best possible tunes: he just wasn’t all that interested in characterization, the music was everything.

Here is a prime example. Today’s choice comes from ‘Norma‘. It is an opera with all the necessary, and slightly unbelievable, ingredients, which make up a good tragic drama. Two women, both Druid priestesses in Gaul, and therefore bound by an oath of chastity; and yet both in love, initially unknown to the other, with the same man – who just happens to be a Vice Consul in the Roman army, with whom war may be imminent.

One of them, Norma, the High Priestess, even has two sons with the Roman, whose abbreviation of his rank now strikes me as being wholly in keeping with what is to come. It does not end well.

Before that, Norma pleads with the gods to avoid war and the inevitable consequences which a liaison with the enemy would bring. ‘Casta Diva‘ is her prayer, a truly gorgeous melody which will be familiar to many, but perhaps not in this version.

I’ve no idea if this is the “voice of an angel” or not. But if it’s the first thing I hear after closing my eyes for the last time, I shall feel mildly encouraged. Click on the image below and judge for yourself.


“A flower between two chasms.”

“If you’d rather wait, please hold and one of our advisers will be with you shortly.” These are the now all-too-familiar words of misleading comfort designed to reassure us while we wait for our mobile phone company to deign to speak to us.

Before arriving at that point, we have gone through the tortuous process of selecting anything between options 1 and 9 on our keypad, with further, and subsequently further, options – quite often landing us up exactly where we started. But if we should reach the invitation to hold, that is when the trouble starts.

Of two things you can now be certain. The first is that you have at least ten minutes of waiting ahead of you (“we are receiving an exceptionally high level of calls today…”). The second, worse, is that for our entertainment we are now going to be subjected to the loudest, most untuneful modern music known to man, presumably in the expectation that most of us will not be holding the phone to our ear, but placing it in on loudspeaker while we skip through emails and blogs like this.

So why, amongst the never-ending choices we are given, is there not the option “to hold in silence, press 1; to hold with modern music, press 2; to hold with classical music, press 3; to hold with jazz, press 4: to hold with…”? You get my point.

A very close friend of mine is a matrimonial lawyer. Happily I have not yet needed his services on that front, but on the occasions I call and am put on hold, I find myself entirely at ease, listening to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s piano sonata no.14 – dubbed the “Moonlight” by Ludwig Rellstab in 1832, five years after its composer had died. Rellstab had likened its very well known 1st movement to moonlight shining on Lake Lucerne.

This passage, an allegretto, which simply means moderately fast, is just a few minutes long and Franz Liszt, one of the most accomplished of all pianists, aptly likened it to a “flower between two chasms”, a reference to the first peaceful movement and the third highly tempestuous one.

No one, not even Beethoven’s wife, if only he’d been lucky enough to find one, is going to pretend this is particularly sophisticated, but few would deny its lighthearted charm and cheerful melody. Beethoven endured a stormy and troubled life in the midst of chaos and bloody upheaval in Europe at the hands of the ambitious Napoleon. Much of his music can sound like a struggle itself, a reflection of his eccentric personality, his peripatetic nature (he moved 33 times in 35 years), his lifelong failings with women, his dreadful personal hygiene.

And worst of all, he was (a composer, remember) losing his hearing from about 1801 and was as well as completely deaf for the last years of his life. Imagine writing the 7th Symphony like that!

Beethoven broke the musical rules. Even the ‘Moonlight‘ sonata, from which today’s choice is taken, begins with a slow movement. His legacy is huge and there is much we can dip into in future posts. For the moment, let your spirits be lifted with this allegretto, here played by Daniel Barenboim, now more well known for his conducting, but one of the very finest Beethoven interpreters.

And mobile telephone companies take note: waiting is bad enough, but having that wait accompanied by an indescribable din only increases the impatience. Give me this option and I’ll be charm itself by the time you get to speak to me.


Summer loving with Mahler

I have been distracted over the last few weeks, which accounts for radio silence. It’s this small matter of sport, which seems to have a habit of occurring in bucket-loads around this time of year.

Queens, Wimbledon, The Lions tour, the Open. And cricket, of course, with a Women’s World Cup thriller thrown in for good measure. All of it absolutely absorbing, conveniently programmed with minimum clashes, the sadness at the completion of one event soon forgotten, and quickly compensated for, by the start of the next.

And on the subject of distractions, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter (born 1955) has long been another pleasurable one of mine. I have been looking for an excuse to post on her for a while, but have always felt that what I put out must, in my humble opinion, be the best that can be found. In the world of singing, there is much competition, and previous pieces have fallen to better interpreters.

Until now.

I have written about Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in an earlier post. There is little dispute that he was one of the most respected, and feared, conductors of all time; but his relations with orchestras and musicians were strained and volatile, leading to frequent separations. It was a characteristic which spilled into his personal life: he had numerous affairs, often with married women. He was nearly twice the age of the beautiful flirty Alma Schindler when they met. It was not a happy marriage. The celebrated architect, Walter Gropius, four years her junior, demanded she leave Mahler for him and put his feelings in a letter – but addressed the envelope to her husband in error. #justabitawkward. (The Mahlers persevered, and Gropius married Alma after her husband died. It did not last.)

In the midst of all that symphonic noise, real and metaphorical,  Mahler’s marriage to Alma yielded the only love song that he ever wrote. ‘Liebst du um Liebe‘ is one of ten songs he set to texts by Friedrich Rückert and stands alone for being the only one in strophic form – a setting to a few, here four, verses with the tune repeated. The simple message in the song is that if you love for beauty (v1), youth (v2), money (v3), do not love me, look to the sun, springtime or the mermaid.

But if you love for love (v4), then yes, love me. Love me forever, and I will do the same.

Apparently Mahler hid the song in the front of his copy of the ‘Valkyrie‘, expecting his wife to stumble on it by way of a surprise. Quite why he expected her to do that is beyond me, and clearly her, too. After a few days, he gave up waiting and announced that he’d take a quick look at the ‘Valkyrie‘, whereupon, lo and behold, the song fell to the floor. Joy unbounded, Alma records they sung it at least twenty times that day. (In between distractions of their own, no doubt.)

You probably won’t have the time or appetite for that, but at only just over two minutes, more than once would not be a surprise. As love songs go, they really don’t come much better than this.

And why van Otter? For the sheer sweetness of it, and her attention to the meaning of the words, especially the palpable tenderness in the last verse, ‘Liebst du um Liebe‘. Listen out for that sigh of love: little wonder Alma went ecstatic.