SurPRISE!

In October last year, I wrote a post about Josef Haydn (1732-1809), alluding, in particular, to his sense of humour. At the heart of this was his eagerness to engage with his audiences: a tough demand in an output, apparently, of some 340 hours of composition.

If he were alive today, I am certain he would be on the side of those who clap between movements, a debate which tends to divide listeners today almost as passionately as…well, take your pick from the current crop. Can’t imagine what might spring to mind.

Even if you are new to classical music, it is likely you will be familiar with the second movement of his Symphony 94 (out of a mere 106), which came to be called The Surprise. Haydn’s intentions were perfectly clear: ‘That will make the ladies scream’, he wrote.

And he was right.

To appreciate its effect, you need to imagine yourself sitting in the audience at its first performance in Hanover Square, London, in 1792. It’s no big surprise to us now, because, unless you’ve not heard it before, we know what’s coming. In 1792, they had no idea.

The Andante starts off innocently enough on the strings with a simple melody, which is repeated more quietly; and then, just as you are getting yourself comfortable, BANG. Everyone comes in on a thumping chord, with what the Germans call a Paukenschlag (great word, meaning kettle drum stroke).

The joke is not repeated, but the genius of the ensuing minutes is sometimes overlooked: Haydn plays with the original tune, turning it around and keeping engaged with his audience. This was more necessary than you might think – competition for their attention was high. One of his pupils, Ignace Pleyel, was in London at the same time and was very popular.

Some of us like surprises, some not. This movement reminds me of a personal experience, which only a handful of people know about, so I’d might as well share it. It is scarcely believable, but every word is true. As surprises go, this is right up there.

About forty years ago, I was to have dinner with a girl, who was going to a drinks party beforehand. She encouraged me to join her there, even though I didn’t know the host, insisting “it’ll be fine.”

Suited and booted, I rang the doorbell, to be greeted by a young girl, no more than five or six years old. “Hello,” I said, “where are Mummy and Daddy?” “Just up the stairs” came the confident reply.

And so up I went. The more I climbed, the more tentative I became. There didn’t seem to be any obvious sounds of a buzzing drinks party. These steps were just like the opening seconds of Haydn’s Andante. I turned to the girl at the bottom of the stairs. “In here?” She nodded.

So in I went. And this was the BANG moment. Mummy and Daddy were there.  But not quite as I expected. Daddy was in the bath, and Mummy was sitting and chatting to him from a wicker chair, also naked as the day she was born, glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other. Anyone who has seen the 1974 film, Emmanuelle, will know the image.

I was in the wrong house.

I bolted fairly hastily, although I could have taken my time, for they were in no state to give chase. Just imagine a complete stranger opening your bathroom door at such a moment. It’s fair to say, however, that the surprise was far from one-sided. I was also in some shock.

These are lovely, beautifully crafted minutes, and the conductor, Mariss Jansons, extracts a terrific sound. Haydn is so underrated, his music often used in concerts as an appetiser for something larger in scale. He is so much better than that.

Click the image –

 

 

 

 

Melody is everything

‘Happy tune? Is there such a thing? If so, I never heard it.’

So, apparently, declared my favourite composer, Franz Schubert. I can’t imagine who or what provoked him to say such a thing: he may have had a short and melancholy life, but there is much in his own, huge output which contradicts his statement. And whatever your taste in music, ancient or modern, all of us can point to something that makes us happy.

I wonder, for example, if Josef Haydn, who lived for more than twice as long as Schubert, was even capable of writing a sad piece.

No. If Schubert really said this, he was just having a bad day. Or perhaps he never got to hear today’s piece by Mozart, who, in a letter of 1786, wrote that ‘melody is the very essence of music’ – a view in keeping with Haydn who said, even more simply, that ‘melody is the main thing.’

A melody, of course, can just as easily be sad. But imagine wandering  the streets of Vienna in 1786, or tucking into a little something in the coffee shop capital of the world (Mozart’s early demise deprived him of the Sachertorte, which didn’t arrive for another thirty or so years, bum deal) – and being struck with a tune like this.

I have written about his piano concertos before and many of the famous ones will already be familiar to even the most reluctant ear.

The 3rd movement of his 23rd Piano Concerto in the sunny key of A major has an infectious beginning , and whenever  I listen to it I have a real sense of Mozart wanting to reprise these opening seconds at the earliest opportunity. There is plenty of playful woodwind, but every note, it seems to me, is a means of returning us to that opening burst.  Which, obligingly, he does.

This, dear Schubert, is unalloyed happiness. I can’t believe you could have heard it, for you would surely have been cheered had you done so. Maybe you have since, because apparently the angels play Mozart when they get together.

It’s a grey day as I write. Division in our country is at its worst for decades. Yes, I know that there are very many composers whom I’ve not yet written about, but at times like this – well, thank goodness for Wolfy.

And Sachertorte.

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The Lamb of God – Verdi’s way

’Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.’ (St. Benedict.)

Now, there’s a cheery thought to open today’s post. I cannot recall the first time I became aware not so much of death, as specifically my own mortality. With the years elapsing ever faster, it seems, it is hard to avoid the blunt reality that what lies ahead is considerably less than what has passed. St.Benedict’s encouragement preys on me more regularly now.

Today the Christian calendar commemorates the feast of All Souls. As I write, it is a glorious autumn day and whether you subscribe to a faith or not, it is impossible on a day such as this not to marvel at creation all around us – and the ephemeral nature of it at the same time. Today will be yesterday before we know it.

And the Christian faith reminds us that ‘we know neither the day nor the hour’. Obvious enough, of course, but a caution which carries more weight as the years are ticked off.

On this feast day, I ponder how lucky I am to have reached three score years, but dare not, as a young child I might have done, assume I will be granted the ‘plus ten’ on top. Carpe diem makes more sense nowadays.

The more so, when we bring to mind the many we know who have predeceased us; and, as we approach the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the millions unknown to us who never experienced adulthood. Teenagers, so many of them.

Teenagers. Some of them shot at dawn by their fellow men for cowardice in the face of the enemy, when in reality they were traumatised.

Today I turn to Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Not for the first time, I know, (I’ve written about Rigoletto before) but the man had a way with tunes, and could capture heartache, passion, and emotion like few others. He was a musical giant in a turbulent Italy and in operatic terms, nothing has really come close to him in that country since. Or before, come to think of it.

So it is little wonder that his Requiem Mass, first performed in 1874 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of the poet Alessandro Manzoni, has been viewed by many as being operatic in nature. It requires a large-scale approach, big choirs and a sizeable orchestra, to deliver sometimes deafening sounds. It is long, certainly; at about ninety minutes, it has rarely  been used liturgically, unsurprisingly, and some have tried to stage it, not very successfully in my view.

Amidst all the fire and brimstone, however, are passages of pure loveliness which tug the heartstrings to their very limit. The Agnus Dei, which is recited in a typical Christian liturgy, is one such: scored for soprano, mezzo soprano, choir and orchestra, it provides those few minutes for us to reflect on those no longer here, beseeching the lamb of God to grant them eternal rest.  Listen out for the strings whose searing ten second accompaniment towards the end goes directly to our sadness.

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I have deliberately chosen a recording which benefits from two things: first, under Riccardo Muti’s direction (not, admittedly, amongst my favourite conductors), because it is taken at a slower, and hence, reflective pace; and secondly because there are no distracting visuals.

Click on the image below. With no such distractions, you can just close your eyes for five minutes and cherish the memories of loved ones (and others) who are no longer with us, or facing that moment now.

 

John Ireland

I was taught not to open a presentation, pitch, or letter with an apology.

Having avoided that with those words, I can now apologise for radio silence.

I don’t know where the time has gone. I always dread the arrival of September, marking, as it does, the end of summer, and a quite magnolious one at that.

This year, the final Test Match against India took place after The Last Night of the Proms, the occasion which I usually accept as the vestige of summer months. But there has surely never been a more emphatic announcement of its passing than the sight and sound of Mohammed Shami’s middle stump being uprooted, to give Jimmy Anderson his wicket-taking record.

One wicket required. Last batsman. No more matches this summer.

And then, in an instant, a split second if ever there was one, mission accomplished. With it, right then, summer 2018 and my first sight of a beach for over ten years, was over. Love this view.

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None of which bears much of a connection to today’s musical offering, but serves as an elaborate excuse for my distractions. Except that the piece I’ve chosen clings on to those balmy days one last time, even if we are well and truly into autumn.

John Ireland (1879-1962) was one of those English composers whose name has been somewhat dwarfed by the likes of William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Benjamin Britten: most likely because he confined himself to predominantly miniature works, especially for piano; and with no symphonies or operas to his name, his legacy was always going to be an uphill battle. Happily it is gaining traction.

Ireland did not have a happy childhood. His publisher father, on his second marriage, was 69 when he was born to a mother thirty years younger than her husband. With a gap like that, you’d be forgiven for expecting her to get in at least one more spouse  – but she actually predeceased him when John was just 14. His father followed her the following year.

The impression you get is that of a lost soul, but the man had talent enough to go to The Royal Academy, where many years later he taught Britten (who was characteristically disparaging about him). His personal life was a struggle. In haste, he married a 17 year old pupil; but far from repenting at leisure, they were divorced with equal haste and without consummation. Tchaikovsky did the same sort of thing, and it is widely recognised that Ireland’s tendencies were similar to the great man.

Despite his internal struggles, he has left some lovely music. Many will be familiar with the hymn My song is love unknown, a personal favourite, for which Ireland composed the music. He was organist at both St.Luke’s in Chelsea and Holy Trinity, Sloane Square.

His music comes under the banner of English Impressionism. The Downland Suite was composed for a brass band competition in 1932 (it didn’t win) and has since been transcribed for strings. The third movement, The Minuet, is possibly the most famous.

There is nothing gushing about this and it could so easily have been written by Elgar. It is in praise of the countryside, especially Sussex, where Ireland is buried.

So, yes, summer is behind us, but this is charm and Englishness at its purest.

Click on the image for one last celebration of sun and greenery –

 

 

 

 

 

Some Mozart acrobatics.

It helps to have some kind of a trigger or cue when writing these posts, but sometimes the desire to get a tune out to you is so overwhelming that I run the risk of not sharing it at all if I wait for that elusive prompt.

Today’s music is a case in point. It requires no link to anything; it is just one of those arias that once heard is loved for ever.

Mozart’s big four operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni are stuffed with melodies which are less plentiful in his others. There are individual arias aplenty in The Seraglio, but I doubt many people go around humming them with any huge enthusiasm. Or at all, for that matter.

Today I have picked an aria which was not even included in Don Giovanni‘s first performance in Prague in 1787. Elvira, one of the Don’s many, and discarded, conquests, was played by Caterina Cavalieri, who complained that her role did not have any standout arias for her to show off her skills. It’s quite possible to speculate that she felt her assets were being underutilized.

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So she asked Mozart to address the matter. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

She got herself a blockbuster of a melody all right. But it came at a price: it requires truly phenomenal breath control, and it separates the men from the boys – or whatever the female equivalent of that analogy  might be.

Don Giovanni is not just one of Mozart’s greatest operas, it is one of the greatest operas by anyone, anywhere, ever: a masterpiece which encompasses tunes galore, comedy, drama, all underlined with a clear moral message. Ingredients which combine to make it a favourite of many.

There is no need to embark on a lengthy synopsis. In short it is the story of a murderous lothario who is warned his time will come, as it does in spectacular fashion.  When the ghost of  one of his victims, the father of one his conquests, accepts the Don’s invitation to dinner, he is given several chances to repent; and in in refusing to do so is engulfed in the flames of hell.

Barbara Frittoli (b 1967) is the soprano who stands out amongst so many others in this aria Mi tradi...To sing it too slowly is to lose out on the dancing woodwind in the background, especially the clarinet, a ‘conversation’ device between singer and instrument which Mozart so ingeniously uses elsewhere. And to sing it too slowly is to cheat, because it avoids the breathing difficulties which come with speed.

There are a couple of minutes reflection before launching into the aria proper. Listen, in particular, to the passage 5.11-5.24 – thirteen seconds of acrobatics in one breath, it’s astonishing.

What’s she singing about? Oh, just the usual lament – you’re gonna get your comeuppance, you’re a cad and bounder, but I still fancy you, dammit.

Click on the image for coloratura singing at its very best.

 

 

Sea pictures with Elgar

All of us will have memories associated with the sea. As a wheelchair user, my own have, until recently, been distant ones.

We have been taking our children to Cornwall for the last twenty years. For the last fifteen, each visit has served as a slightly painful yardstick for my MS: ‘I could do this last year, but I can’t now.’ My most frustrating annual realizations were acknowledging that my golfing days with my son were behind me, as were my pathetic attempts at body-boarding with friends and the rest of my family.

If I’m honest, I used to spend more time at the water’s edge, standing in a Duke-of-Edinburgh-like pose with my hands behind my back, gazing out to sea; invariably with something on my feet, because I have this peculiar aversion to sand between my toes and the difficulty of getting rid of it later. What’s that all about?

But this year was different. It was the first time I was able to say “I couldn’t do this last year, but I can now.”

Through the generosity of a private charity, I now have an electric wheelchair which has something of a Heineken effect. From the house we rent, with no other building between us and the sea, I was able to negotiate terrain hitherto inaccessible and wonder at a view I hadn’t seen for over ten years.

That tiny speck in the distance  is me.

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And this is what I feasted my eyes and ears on: an expanse of colour and sound which unfolded gradually as my chair edged closer. I felt like a child, experiencing it all for the first time, because I had quite forgotten what I had been missing until it was there in front of me.

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It is little wonder that the sea has captured the attention of poets, artists, and musicians. In music there is a wealth of work to convey its mystery and power.

Dame Janet Baker has recently celebrated her 85th birthday and it is high time this blog gave her beautiful and distinctive voice an airing. Edward Elgar, about whom I have written in previous posts (pop Elgar in the Search box for more), wrote his song cycle Sea Pictures in 1894. The most well-known, Where Corals Lie, is a poem by Richard Garnett, beckoning its reader to the sea. It is just a few minutes long, and has this lovely, slightly haunting, melody, coupled with an almost nervous beat. Baker’s rich, dark voice is a perfect fit to both words and music.

Make sure you listen right to the end: I doubt there is a better rendition – and to abandon it early would be to miss the last chord, which is sweetness itself, and one which could so easily have come from the hand of his fellow Englishman, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

‘I must go down to the sea again…’, wrote John Masefield. It is an unfulfilled desire I’ve had for many years, at last accomplished this summer.

Oh, and I even pottered around the golf course with my son, too. So that’s two things I couldn’t do last year, and now can.

Click on the image and picture yourself by the sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moon Music the Strauss way.

Sport has once more interfered with my musical musings, the usual quota increased this year by the World Cup. I was not glued to every match, but it was a gripping contest in Moscow, even without England’s success – for that it surely was.

The Open at Carnoustie had all the ingredients for a thrilling last day, with over half a dozen players in the mix. The last hour promised to be the most exciting for years, until, one by one, every contender bar one decided it wasn’t for him. As a consequence, there was no multi competitor play-off, just an outright (and thoroughly likeable) champion.

Something of an anti climax. Just like the well-billed Blood Moon last Friday, whose visibility in the south of the UK was about as evident as a policeman when you really want one. (Which, aptly enough, is only likely to be, if ever, once in a blue moon.)

But it did have the effect of calling to mind one really magical five minutes of music which I encountered for the first time just weeks before. I had never been to a performance of Capriccio by Richard Strauss until this summer.

I have written about Strauss’s unparalleled writing for the soprano voice (Search on Home Page reveals all), but he was also a top-rate orchestrator (see parentheses above). Capriccio was Strauss’s last opera, first performed in Munich in October 1942. The year. Just imagine attending that evening, fully aware of what horrific misfortune could occur at any moment.

The opera does not need a lengthy explanation here: it is, quite simply, a lighthearted piece which debates (through two different suitors for a Countess) the perennial question of which art form is the more important – poetry/words or music?

They are, of course, inseparable.  The combination of the two throughout the opera is unsurprisingly sublime: at one point I counted eight different voices singing their own lines all at the same time, each unique to him- or herself, and each distinguishable within the group.

And then this.  As the Countess prepares to reflect on her dilemma, Strauss slips in these few minutes of Mondschein (Moonshine) music.  I have written about music connected with the moon in the past (in danger of repeating my above parentheses now). As the son of a horn player, he knew a thing or two about this instrument, which opens this brief passage.

There are a few recordings to choose from. Antonio Pappano can scarce do no wrong in my ears, but I think he takes it a tiny bit fast; and Barenboim’s live concert succumbs to the very smallest of blemishes on the horn.

I’ve picked one where the sound is perfect and the visuals are just irritating. So when you’ve clicked on it, I would encourage you to sit back and wallow in the sound, wishing, as I did when I first heard it a month ago, that it could go on and on and on. A single horn, then full orchestra with a couple of harps for good measure.

(The Countess’s final piece is often sung as a stand-alone concert aria. I saw Kiri Te  Kanawa perform it with Leonard Bernstein many years ago and had the pleasure of meeting them both afterwards. She, as you might expect, was divine. He, as you might expect, thought he was.)

Another new discovery. And a moon you can rely on, too.