Crimbo limbo needs music

It’s that time of year, isn’t it?

That lull between the end of one celebration and the beginning of another. The time when many us who do not leg it for faraway climes may move from one bunch of rellies to another; or, having successfully survived that already, just stay put and while away the hours, going on ‘hearty’ yet reluctant walks. Anything, even on-line sales for items we do not need, with the sole purpose of bridging 25th December with the 31st.

There’s the pub, of course. Done that too, a few times.

It’s only the 29th today and now I’m struggling with a protracted break. And if I am, others must be, too. Even the Test match ended the day early. So – what to do?

It’s the fourth day of Christmas. Truly I never thought I would turn to the music of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) and even less so, in the spirit of four, to his Four Seasons, a collection of four concertos you may think you know so well as not to hear anything new in them. Much what I  thought until I discovered this.

The redhead Vivaldi was born in Venice, where he spent much of his life composing music for an orphanage. As the first born of nine children, it was the then custom to single him out for the priesthood, a tradition I can be glad has long since gone into abeyance; but as someone who suffered from a mild form of asthma, he managed to discharge his priestly duties only rarely.

His output was indeed substantial, and he was by far the leading Baroque composer of his day. His music had a clear influence on Bach, but a voluminous legacy is not enough to guarantee long term popularity and he died in poverty in Vienna. Stravinsky was perhaps the most outspoken, calling him “greatly overrated – a dull fellow who could compose the same form over and so many times over”.

The house in which he lived has since been replaced by the Hotel Sacher, and I can personally vouch for the excellence of its Sachertorte.

Few would dispute that his Four Seasons comprise his most famous work, but there have been far too many unnecessary attempts to try and jazz them up to make them more accessible than they already are. Since we are in winter now, let us stay on theme and select number 4 by that name, here played in summer yellow by Anne Sophie Mutter. So shut the curtains, light a fire, pour yourselves a drink – and be thankful you are inside to listen to this. Because it’s cold, it really is.

A discovery, I believe, of the somewhat tyrannical and self-important conductor, Herbert von Karajan (don’t waste your time putting his name into my search bar), Mutter is seen here in her signature backless dress, the very embodiment of the German phrase “ein schöner Rücken kann auch entzücken” (translating, without the same rhythm, into “a nice back can also delight”. “A nice rear can also endear” is a version of choice for some, but not here, surely?)

She is a sensational violinist, here playing amongst string instruments and harpsichord only, and the real chill, the chattering of teeth in the bitter cold, is all too clear throughout. It shivers from the start. This is another of those examples where an overfamiliar, certainly overplayed, piece can still spring an unexpected pleasure.

Click below. Now what am going to do until Sunday?

(Spoke too soon – just been informed I’m in charge of games for New Year’s Eve.)

Continue reading “Crimbo limbo needs music”

It’s Christmas – call for Victor!

I have been a little pre-occupied of late, as we have just moved house, so the blog discipline has been found wanting. But it would be wrong to let the festive period pass without a reference to the season in some way, and so here are a few minutes – or more, if you wish –  to sit back with your eyes closed and let out a contented ‘Aaah’.

It is most likely that you will have had your fill of Christmas carols by now, but this brief passage from my great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony is charm itself. I wrote about Victor, whom I never met on account of his early death at the age of 46 in 1947, in September 2016 (see ‘A bit of Fun’ or Hely-Hutchinson in the Search box). Victor was Director of music at the BBC at the time, and refused to turn on his radiators in his office during a bitter winter, for fear of it setting a bad example in straightened times. He contracted pneumonia and died.

While at the Beeb, Victor was instrumental in establishing the Third Programme, or what we now call Radio 3. He was a talented musician and knew all the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas by heart. Nowadays his compositions are rarely played, but his Carol Symphony always gets a healthy airing at this time of year.

My heart sinks when I see The First Nowell in a carol concert race card: too many verses and a slightly dreary refrain, despite some noble efforts to liven it up with descants. And yet it is by far my favourite passage in Victor’s symphony. I am attaching the whole piece here, just in case you are left with the urge to hear the rest, but for the purpose of this post I want to highlight the few minutes from 12:33.

We all have different visuals when listening to music and whilst I have no wish to influence yours, I am, nevertheless, going to give you a glimpse of mine here.

This is the scene I think Victor sets. A field under a starlit night, introduced with a few bars from The Coventry Carol which, in the minor key, evoke a mysterious mood. There is definitely a sense of something about to happen. But in a few moments, with the key shifting to major, and with the help of the harp, the listener is soon assured that this is a moment not of fear, but of magic, of wonder.

In come the violins with the theme of The First Nowell, soon joined by weightier strings and dancing woodwind, culminating with the brass underlining the emphatic statement “Born is the king of Israel”. It’s a wonderful piece of orchestration. Calm returns with The Coventry Carol and it’s not hard to imagine a group of shepherds rubbing their eyes, each wondering who is going to be the first to ask “Did you see that? Did you see that? 

That’s what comes to my mind, anyway.

If you’ve still got to wrap those presents, or need something uplifting during other countless festive chores, play the whole piece – it’s good, uncomplicated stuff, with moments such as the above, of real charm.

Manuscriptnotes (and its staff of one) wish all its readers a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year!