Today’s smile … a surreptitious tear from Donizetti

In my last post, I alluded to the difficulty of getting a good tune out of your head, and ever since selecting my next piece, I have fallen victim to just that! But this is entirely natural: I happened to stumble upon a quotation by the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) the other day, who said, perhaps rather grandly, in a BBC broadcast in 1953 that, “Good music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty.” Well, he’s right enough on this one. It’s also a good way to end the day.

One of Donizetti’s  (1797-1848) most famous and widely performed operas, ‘L’elisir d’amore’ (‘The Elixir of Love’) had its first performance in 1832. I don’t think we need trouble ourselves too much on a lengthy synopsis, but setting the context very briefly for today’s choice is helpful. Nemorino, a peasant, is madly in love with Adina; who, being well-off and well-read, is, frankly, also well out of his league. This doesn’t dissuade him from trying, to no avail, to win her over – indeed she initially accepts the proposal of someone else. But the arrival of a quack doctor comes to his aid. Having overheard Adina reading about a magic potion which Tristan used to capture the heart of Isolde, Nemorino asks the doctor to sell him some. What he downs in one is, in fact, cheap plonk, but it has the effect of giving him Dutch courage, for he is confident he will soon be irresistible to Adina; so much so, that his flirting with other girls upsets Adina, and she realises she loves him after all. (The fact that he unexpedetly inherits a fortune from an uncle comes as a late bonus.)

On noticing a tear in her eye, Nemorino sings one of opera’s most tender romances ‘Una furtiva lagrima’, here performed by the Peruvian tenor, Juan Diego Florez. It starts in the minor key, perhaps to suggest his regret at Adina’s apparent sadness, but listen to how Donizetti opens it up into the major key when Nemorino affirms his knowledge that Adina loves him – it is a statement of pure happiness. The melody is repeated, but this time unfolding with even more confidence. It is measured, rather than overtly ecstatic, but the message is clear. There are few things in life better than to know we are loved, especially by those we love ourselves; and there are few better examples in music of that feeling being conveyed.

One last observation. I don’t want to diss the bassoon, but the reality is that its sound is not the most instantly appealing. Although many of you will know it as the instrument which Prokofiev chooses to represent the curmudgeonly grandfather in ‘Peter and the Wolf’, its solo repertoire is not all that extensive. And yet, inspirationally, it is the bassoon, with a little harp backing, which Donizetti uses to introduce this most romantic of arias. Once heard, you really can’t imagine it being achieved with anything better. Genius choice.

I’m conscious that my first vocal piece was also a tenor, so I shall redress the balance next time, but in the meantime I hope Beecham’s words ring true…



Today’s Smile is about…Verdi

Singing. Where to start on such a huge topic as this?

Do you play a musical instrument? Maybe you do – but maybe your instant reply was ‘no’. And yet we have all sung at some stage in our lives, even if not professionally.

So you do, in fact, play an instrument; and not only that, you possess the most versatile and wide-ranging of all, in your human voice. So when many of us bemoan the fact that we don’t play one, we often forget that we may be more talented than we think, by having access to an instrument we can take anywhere, and without the need for an extra seat – as in the case of the double bass player, for example! As well as being portable, the voice has a vast range, which I look forward to demonstrating in future posts.

Happily there is no shortage of pieces to share in this particular field. Whether solo, duets, or in greater numbers, music which includes the human voice does have an extra dimension. I was a very late convert to the extraordinary qualities and beauty of classical singing: I vividly recall giggling as a child at warbling noises from bellicose performers, quite unable to take it seriously. It just sounded silly to me. And then my parents took me to my first, and one of Verdi’s most popular operas, Aida, at Covent Garden. Within minutes of the curtain rising, Verdi gives Radames this testing little aria, in which he sings of his adoration of Aida. I was astonished. It helped that the part was sung, as it is here, by Placido Domingo, one of the very greatest tenors of all time. Don’t take too much notice of his strange attire (the opera is set in Egypt), just feast your ears on the sound. And imagine  having to come out and sing this almost straightaway, having done barely anything before: for the singer, its success is crucial for holding his audience for the rest of the evening. A brief, triumphant opening with some trumpets, and then straight into this gorgeous tune.

Sometimes I just want to be sung to. What a choice there is! I could not think where to start on this one, so my personal experience seemed an obvious introduction: the wonders of the human voice are limitless. There will be no obvious chronology in what I choose, simply a deep-rooted love of the piece, which I hope you will also enjoy.


Everyone knows Beethoven’s Fifth


The opening chords of Beethoven’s fifth symphony are perhaps the most recognisable in all music, seeming to spread doom. Its minor key adds to the despair.

But hold on a moment. It is sometimes easy to gloss over one of the most uplifting few minutes ever scored. Go to this link attached .

These are the  third and fourth movements. After four and a half minutes, you will encounter the genius transition of dark to light. I wonder where it will take you when you listen to it. Whenever I hear it, I see myself tucked up in a dark room, as my mother comes in to wake me up. She tiptoes towards the curtains, and for a split second pauses before opening them vigorously to let in a blaze of morning sunshine. It is a moment of joy and glory.



Today’s Smile…a great Schubert tune.

Here is my next attempt to lure you a little into the joys of classical music. It is, of course, a matter of personal taste; but, despite very stiff competition, my own view is that Franz Schubert was, without exception, the finest tunesmith of all time – and yes, that includes Mozart in my book. You know those times when you just can’t get a tune out of your head, and it starts to irritate you a bit? The truth is, research has proved that this is actually because we love it. As an introduction, try this Impromptu for piano, one of eight written in 1827 – and see if you can resist playing it again, or, better still, listening to the entire set: I promise you will not be disappointed! It has a beautiful melody, slightly melancholic, but the tune will grab you from the start.

I will share lots more of Schubert’s melodies with you in time. It is amazing to think how much this man achieved in his tragically short life, dying shortly before his 32nd birthday, having been a pallbearer at Beethoven’s funeral in 1827. And to put it into context, as I think it sometimes does help, George IV was on the throne in England; one of our great animal artists, Edwin Lansdeer, was active in the UK; while painters Goya, Delacroix and Ingres were all making their marks in Europe; poets Edgar Alan Poe and Tennyson were busy, as was author Sir Walter Scott.

And finally, a brief word about the pianist here, Vladimir Horowitz, who was born in 1903 and married the daughter of the great conductor, Toscanini (despite him speaking no Italian, and she no Russian!) He is widely regarded as one of the all time greats for his interpretations of Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and the Russians. His virtuosity is almost unparalleled, but just look at the lack of body movement and histrionics: whatever he plays, be it dramatic or soothing, this is a pianist who does not get in the way.

Apparently, his preferred performance time was a Sunday afternoon, as he believed his audiences were more relaxed then. So if you haven’t got the time today, maybe try it later in the week – but please do try it!