Another pair of trousers

I was chatting to someone about classical music the other day who said he enjoyed having it on in the background while he was working.


I’m sure what he said was true. It’s by no means an unusual way to express an interest in music, and many a time have I heard it said, but it does highlight the fundamental difference between hearing and listening. I could never put something on deliberately while having to concentrate on anything else: it’s just not possible to listen to any music of choice while trying, for example, to read, do a crossword, learn some poetry (very good for exercising the little grey cells, be it the verse of  Shakespeare or the limericks of Nash), or even write this post.

One of those activities will not get your full attention. Here’s the thing: to derive the fullest benefits of classical music, you do need to actually listen; not least because each time you do, you will notice something different, something you hadn’t heard before. And the observation of that alone is enough to enhance your enjoyment.

The human voice is the one instrument we can all play.  You can take it anywhere and it does not require another seat when travelling (although I can’t deny there are times when a number of us wish my father-in-law would leave it at the church door.)  If you doubt the ability of the human voice to bring solace and delight, and a whole lot more besides, I challenge you to hold that view after these few minutes.

I wrote about ‘trouser’ roles last time and here is another, this time a duet. The Grimm tale (somewhat literally in parts) of Hänsel and Gretel is well known, and it is virtually the only music, an opera, for which Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) is known. (Not to be confused with the living singer of the same name whose big hit Please Release Me might have been a suitable soundtrack for the Leave campaign bus.)

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(Check out those ‘taches.)

Warning. The attached clip contains exquisite singing, but viewers may find the wardrobe malfunction distracting. Kathleen Battle in the red looks like she has been dropped into something, only parts of which have inflated on impact. Frederica von Stade is her fellow American singer.

So having viewed the image, I can promise that you will miss nothing by averting or closing your eyes. This will enable you to listen to two glorious voices in the parts of Hänsel and Gretel, singing The Evening Prayer in which they call upon angels to watch over them while they sleep in the forest. The combination of these two takes some beating.

The opera was a huge success and the story makes it an ideal first opera for younger ears and eyes.

Let your ears really listen. There is no right or wrong reaction, no right or wrong visuals which come to mind. Whatever your response, I hope it is a pleasurable one.

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So Long Farewell?

What a relief it is in these chaotic times to be able to wallow in music.

‘B*******s to Brexit’ will no doubt land up in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations one day. The so-called ‘trouser role’ in opera is the part of a man, sung by a woman, on account of the music being too high for even the highest of tenor voices. Until the days of Mozart, (mid-late 18th century), such roles were sung by men who’d undergone the op and become a castrato. Their necessity came about as a result of women not being permitted to sing in church choirs: the demands of church music required their range, but not their presence.

It was a dangerous procedure, and you probably had a 50/50 chance of survival. But for many poor families, the risk was worth it: the best castrati were the stars of their day and would earn vast sums. The effect was to preserve the pre-puberty voice, and enable it to reach dizzy heights. I will spare you the gory details, suffice to say that it didn’t entail full removal; just the severing of the spermatic chord, normally in a bath. And with no anesthetic. Bologna was a renowned centre: you might even equate the numbers of outlets with modern day tattoo parlours.

Don’t worry, I haven’t lost the plot, you’re on the right site. All this is necessary background to today’s choice, because many often wonder why male parts are sometimes sung by women. The short answer is that the church finally outlawed the very procedure it had initiated, and the castrato singer was no longer.

There are many famous trouser roles, Cherubino in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro is probably the most famous, but in another, less well-known of his operas, La Clemenza di Tito, Sesto, the lover of Vitellia is sung by a soprano. (At its premier in 1791, the year of Mozart’s sad and short life, it was sung by a castrato.) In Act 1 of, it must be said, a fairly dull opera, Sesto has this knockout aria, where Mozart jostles singer with clarinetist: in some recordings it is abundantly clear that singer and instrumentalist are trying to out-do the other.

Not here. The dialogue between Joyce DiDonato and Julien Hervé is finely balanced, both shining equally: be patient, there is some highly skilled and dramatic music here.

In the context of our current ‘rainbow of chaos’, the opening lines caught my attention. ‘I go, but, my dearest, make peace with me again. I will be what you would most have me be, do whatever you wish.’

Our government’s negotiating skills summed up by a castrato, no less.

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Epiphany: Cornelius brings Christmas to a close.

Today marks the last day of Christmas, the feast of the Epiphany. The story goes that the three wise men arrived at the stable to pay homage to the infant child, Jesus, with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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So I cannot resist one last Christmas offering, appropriate for the occasion. I posted a version of this piece in 2016, but I have yet to hear it sung better than this.

Peter Cornelius (1824-74) was a friend of both Wagner and Liszt, but he was not especially sympathetic to their styles. Although he wrote plenty of other compositions, he is one of those composers who is now known chiefly for one piece alone, in his case The Three Kings, and it is the perfect way to bring the season to a close. So today I will be brief and steer you directly to the music, with no attempt to add anything wise to the words of Cornelius, for the text is his, too.

In 2016, I was fortunate enough to play a part in putting together the Christmas concert for the MS Society in St Paul’s Cathedral. Gerald Finley sang the piece with the choir. I have struggled in vain to isolate the clip, but all you have to do is to scroll to 1.16.40 for a few minutes of undiluted nectar.  On that day, I heard it twice in rehearsal; but professionals always hold something back for the big moment, and the sound and clarity on the occasion were unforgettable.

I don’t have any prizes to hand out, but I will be very impressed if anyone can identify both faces behind him.

Click on the image and scroll to 1.16.40 (there are other delights if you want to listen to more, the concert starts at 15.17).









Music: the best of all life-enhancers

Once upon a time I used to have some influence, indeed full control, over what music was being played in the car when ferrying children. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but there came a point when I just accepted that the channel would be changed, without request, even before a seatbelt was fastened.

I suspect this presumptuous behaviour extends far beyond the Hely-Hutchinson household.

Initially I was disappointed with this. When still in a car seat, my youngest daughter had filled me with enormous encouragement when she enthused ‘Oh, yes, I really like this one’ to the strains of the Brahms Violin Concerto. Her initiation has not endured. My eldest daughter will take it in moderation, especially if I help her listen to the tune.

At about 10 years of age, my son was a little more enquiring. ‘Why do you actually like this stuff, Dad?’ And not in an aggressive way, but in a way that was genuinely seeking an understanding of my love of it. It was a curved ball: how do you answer that satisfactorily, when the simplest, but wholly inadequate response, is ‘I dunno, I just do’? When you are asked such a question out of real interest, your questioner deserves a better explanation.

Music in all its forms is the one art form above all others which can elicit the widest range of human emotions: the same piece – classical, jazz, pop – can make one person weep, another dance. There is no correct reaction: the experience, and its toying with our imaginations, is all. That, in itself, does not need to be explained: it really doesn’t mater why.

And it is the ultimate comforter.

2018 will go down as one of the most turbulent years of modern times. There is no need for me to rehearse the ingredients here. The saddest theme for me is a noticeable, and, I fear, growing sense of anger. People seem to have even less time to ‘stand and stare’; less time to communicate properly; we are all in a mad rush; stressed; too much emphasis on doing, and not enough on being. And before knowing it, our being will be done.

You will know by now that I am quite a fan of George Handel (1685-1759). Choosing music at this time is not easy, but clearly something of a Christmassy nature is apt, and Handel’s Messiah, a work lasting nearly two and half hours which he composed in just  24 days, has grabbed my attention as the perfect antidote to this division. Even more so, for Handel leaving his birthplace in Germany to live his last days in London. I hope we did not place his remains in Westminster Abbey against his will.

Listen to these few minutes of a very familiar passage ‘For unto us a child is born‘. With a little more attention, you will notice from the opening note its freshness; its lightness, in voice and orchestra. Sir Colin Davis was one of the kings of choral conducting (just noticed his second name was Rex), and the articulation requires no subtitles. And what words! ‘Wonderful! Counsellor…The Prince of Peace.’

It is a brief  passage full of hope, joy, excitement, optimism; a few minutes, if you like, completely devoid of anger. The embodiment of the ability of music to ‘enable us to pass our lives with a little sweetness amidst all the bitterness we encounter here’ – words written by Marin Mersenne in his Harmonie universelle, and just as appropriate today as they were in 1636.

Thank you for your lovely support for these humble jottings – feel free to pass on the link to friends or family, especially younger ones. Happy Christmas and a peaceful 2019 wherever this finds you.

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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.

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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.