D-Day and Schubert

The tools of modern warfare mean that nowadays engagement with the enemy at close hand is rare.

Of the many themes which have emerged during these D-Day commemorations, one has stood out to me more than most: it is the frequency with which veterans have referred to the main feature contributing to the terror in front of them as they scrambled to the beach.

Noise. A deafening volume in a cauldron of death. A sound, I suspect, which is not heard as often by today’s military, because the location of the enemy is mostly completely out of sight.

And that got me thinking more of what a horrendous experience these young men encountered. Wading through water, in some cases so deep that many drowned under the weight of their equipment, heading straight into a din so awful, a cacophony of sound with only one intent.

Fifteen years ago, on the 60th Anniversary, my son went on a school trip to visit the key areas. On one blissful afternoon, I was sitting on the wall, high up, overlooking Arromanches beach. Below me, the tide was out, a considerable distance away, exposing a vast expanse of smooth sand and a surprisingly sparsely populated beach.

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In the midst of it, I could see my 12-year-old son playing cricket with half a dozen mates. I sat there gazing out to sea, when it struck me that I was watching a scene of purist innocence being played out on the very stage which had hosted a portable harbour to enable equipment and men to land for about five months after D-Day. And, consequently, to enable my son and friends to enjoy their freedom in front of my eyes. It was an intensely moving experience.

I’m going to get to the music soon, but there is one more diversion you must allow me. My late father was president of the Political Society at his school. In that capacity, the choice of whom to invite to address the society was his. In the spring of 1944, he decided, somewhat precociously, to write to General Eisenhower asking him if he would do the society the honour of addressing them on Monday, June 5. They always met on Mondays and my father was particularly specific about the date.

Below is a copy of the letter dad got in reply: wonderfully unspecific, not only about the date of my father’s letter, but also, perhaps deliberately, about the date of his invitation. Just 17 days later, the landings had begun. This letter is quite a treasure.

And now, finally, to the music I have selected for today’s commemorations. A strange choice, you might think at first, but there is some sense to it. Schubert’s quintet in C was composed in the last months of his life in 1828 and not performed for the first time until over 20 years after he had died; but it is now widely acknowledged to be one of the most popular pieces in all chamber music. It is highly likely that you will recognise this second movement, for it has been used in films and television programmes.

Don’t even think of putting this on unless you are going to completely relax and allow yourself to be absorbed by the music. It is not to be played while you are rushing around, or even between chores. It is the ultimate music for quiet contemplation, imbued with melancholy and turmoil.

And, as such, a fitting and beautiful passage with which to reflect the sacrifices made by so many young men.

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The humanity of Beethoven

If Beethoven were alive today, there has to be a decent chance – likelihood, even – that he would have been cured of the deafness which beset him for the last fifteen years of his life.

Of the various remedies which were suggested to him, and there were plenty, amongst them was the suggestion to use olive oil.

In Cornwall last year, I managed to collect some water in my left ear which refused to come out, with the result that by April this year I could barely hear a thing if I blocked my right one. Nearly two hundred years after the great man, I was also recommended the use of olive oil, but as a precursor to having the ear syringed, as the oil softens the wax and thereby reduces the risk of damage to the drum during the procedure.

There is a theory, one of many, that Beethoven’s own deafness may have had its roots when plunging his head into a bowl of water in times of frustration. In later years, his personal hygiene was almost nonexistent, so his ears may have escaped proper cleaning: I am equally sure that it would have taken more than syringing to deal with his problem. But my own experience has given me the teensiest sense of what it is like not to hear properly.

Summing up the work of any composer in just one piece is not just difficult, it is verging on the daft. Beethoven’s enormous output in his miserable life had many landmarks, many ‘firsts’. His third symphony, the Eroica, changed symphonic writing for good. His ninth was the first to include a choir. I could go on…

But if I had to single out just one piece which summed up the core frustration in his life, it would be his 23rd (of 32) piano sonata, now known as the Appassionata.

Writing about music is notoriously hard, and, some would say, a little futile, because it is the hearing of it and the experience which is personal to each of us. Beethoven, however, who once quipped that he would rather write 10,000 notes than a single letter of the alphabet, speaks to us so directly in his music, and this piece in particular, that it is not at all difficult to understand its message.

Beethoven has something of a reputation for tumultuous, even ballsy music. Because of this, it is easy to forget that the man wrote some of the most exquisite and sensitive slow movements in the entire repertoire. It’s like a lion stopping in his tracks and scooping up a lesser mortal to tend and nurture, rather than trample or devour.

So today I’m giving you the last two movements of the Appassionata, played with appropriate passion and wonderful clarity by Valentina Lisitsa.  It starts with a simple theme, followed by three distinct variations, before returning to the original. At first it may seem a little pedestrian, but as it unfolds, Beethoven’s mastery of counterpoint, the ability to have two or more tunes singing at the same time, comes to the fore. It becomes five minutes of pure tenderness, which grow on you each time you hear it. As it comes to its close, Beethoven launches straight into the final movement without a pause.

This is Beethoven ranting at the world at the deterioration of his hearing. Listen to that circular motif after the first few seconds, which remains a theme throughout: it is the cry of an anguished man, pacing up and down in his room. Anger; frustration; desperation; turmoil. In the unlikely event that he has not made his point, the final minute will leave you in no doubt. And yet,  in the midst of it all this, a pleading beautiful melody, begging for a cure.

(I was once advised by a piano teacher to concentrate on the left hand and the right will take care of itself. Not a chance that works here.)

This is Beethoven laid bare in the sound. Of all composers, few reach us on such a human level: he goes directly to our souls like no other. Some of Beethoven’s greatest works were written when completely deaf. Imagine that for a moment: to know how it’s going to sound without the experience of actually hearing it. What a genius.

I have deterred you too long. Listen to this and be glad you can. And if you haven’t had your ears syringed, you might like to consider it. I’m now turning the volume down, not up.

Just need to stop saying ‘what?’, which has become something of an irritating habit.

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Stravinsky’s Rite

When was the first time you realized you liked cheese? You’ve always liked it? Spinach, then; liver; avocados; offal; brussel sprouts? (Fair enough, you still don’t like those.) Chances are, however, that a liking for one or all of these has come over time.

Mozart, Haydn -purists, forgive me- are the chips of classical music. Nobody ever popped a chip into their mouth, chewed it over, weighed it all up, and after a lengthy period of deliberation concluded ‘Hmm, quite like that, I suppose.’ It’s the same with Mozart and Haydn: you can’t help but love ’em.

Other foods, composers, creep into our senses with age and a maturity to experiment. It is the abandonment of an almost congenital prejudice: Mozart, chips, sure. Stravinsky, kidneys, nah, just don’t like the sound of it. So without any rationale, which you simultaneously acknowledge, you then decide you’re not going to even try it.

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You know what’s coming now, don’t you. In my efforts to persuade new listeners that there will always be something to like in classical music, I have tended to err on the safe: melody has been at the heart of every post thus far.

Not today.

Today I’m going to challenge your ears with something altogether less comfortable. Brace yourself for an assault of dissonance and fury. Don’t you dare quit yet. My guess is that if you are new to classical music, and especially if you are young, this can only excite you.

Today it’s not about a tune. It’s about rhythm alone, and how multiple changes of musical time signatures can combine to leave you almost scared, bewildered, shocked.

(Rhythm can exist on its own, by the way. A melody, however, cannot; it depends on rhythm to give the tune its meaning: try singing Elgar’s Nimrod, giving equal time to each note and you will quickly land up with the blandest collection of notes.)

I have written about Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) before, but in the context of his delightful Romance from The Gadfly. Now I want you to imagine yourself in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées on an evening in May 2013.

Without knowing it, your delicate ears are about to be bludgeoned with the most influential and controversial piece of the 20th century. The Rite of Spring, a ballet staged by Sergei Diaghilev and choreographed by the greatest ballet dancer of the early 20th century, Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), lasted just 35 minutes. But it caused a stir from the moment the curtain went up.

Some have put this uproar down to the choreography, but the music was so alien that its impact can scarcely be surprising. I will not trouble you with the plot here, beyond summarising that it is a ballet which culminates in a chosen maiden dancing herself to death. Nowadays, the music is one of the most performed of all 20th century pieces in the concert hall.

Here is the final part, The Dance of Death. It is outrageous, scandalous, daring, ground-breaking, menacing, deranged, offensive: at its many rehearsals, some of the musicians were having to stifle their laughter in disbelief. But for all that, in its multiple changes of rhythm, drum thumps (requiring two players) it is unquestionably intoxicating, too.

A final thought. Have you ever heard a chef openly admit that he detested a particular food? All of them seem to rave about all food, whatever it is. Pierre Monteux, the conductor on the first night, had no such qualms: he admitted freely that he loathed the piece – but went on to conduct it another 50 times. What an honest professional.

Click on the image below. I have attached the music; not because I expect you to follow it, but by way of demonstrating that I don’t think you need to be a musician to see the chaos on the page. Try and see it through, it’s only a few minutes.

Who knows? In time it may rank alongside a newly acquired taste in food; but if it remains your brussel sprout, at least you will have tried it.


Bach: St Matthew Passion

Tomorrow I make my annual pilgrimage to The Royal Festival Hall for the Bach Choir’s performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.

I can’t remember how long I have been doing this. An old friend introduced the piece to me many years ago and for several thereafter the two of us would make it our yearly treat. As the years passed and my eager anticipation for the event grew, others, out of curiosity and observation of how the occasion affected me, have delved into the piece and discovered its spiritual beauty – thereby kicking our little secret into the long grass.

Humph. Parade rained upon.

I wrote about Bach, and this work particular, in April 2017, so click on the link below for some more information about the man and the piece, and another excerpt, not least because there’s not a whole lot I can add to it.


Today I want to share the opening chorus with you. I have deliberately selected a version which fulfils two essentials. First the speed, which here, for me is perfect: taken correctly, it is as if a long train is pulling out of the station, embarking on a lengthy trip; as the voices come in, the train has emerged into the open air and you nestle comfortably into your seat, relishing the indulgence of doing absolutely nothing beyond letting go and immersing yourself fully into the music.

The second essential, facilitating the first, is that there are no visuals here. The Passion, whether you believe it or not, is a story of the highest drama, and this has led some to staging it. I went to one such production a number of years ago and I came away completely unfulfilled. Visuals, staging, just get in the way of the music: they can even distract you enough to take you away from it.

The piece, nearly three hours in length, would always be in my Desert Island Discs lineup. And if I had to select just one, The St Matthew Passion would be it.

In that, I recently discovered, I am in the best possible company: the late Claudio Abbado, one of my favourite conductors, unhesitatingly said the same when he was interviewed for the programme.

Click on the image – and if you can get to a performance in the next couple of weeks, you will start a habit which you will find hard to give up in years to come.

But a good one. Perhaps the best.





The glory of Sibelius

Why do you turn to music? Any music? What is it for?

It’s one of those great unresolved questions. Trying to demystify it is in itself an exercise  which will rob it of its mystery: the effect of the same piece on each of us, whatever the genre, can be quite different, depending on the circumstances.

But in one thing I think we can be united. It is corny and unoriginal to affirm that music is a universal language, a healer. Few would dispute that. It is more than that: its common and unparalleled attribute is that of all the arts it takes us out of the world we inhabit and into our souls. We need it for solace in times of sorrow, just as we do to enhance a celebration.

I suspect, however, that many of us don’t really give that a second thought. Turning to it is a simple act of instinct.

Think for a moment of those for whom such access is not available. Has there ever been a more graphic depiction of nothingness than the appalling images from Mozambique this week? We have grown accustomed to similar pictures over the years, natural disasters appear to be on the rise; but the rampant annihilation of everything for as far as the eye can see brought with it a stark reality: a total absence of life. An expanse of nothingness. I mean, just look at this. Just look at it.

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In such a context, music may not appear to serve any meaningful purpose. To those who survived, it will be irrelevant, and it is anyway unlikely that any of them would have been able to enjoy it before the storm hit. So what is the relevance or point of music here?

To those of us lucky enough to access it, the answer, I think, is the power to inspire. To cajole us to act. Uplifting music can do this, can arouse those of us more fortunate to make some small difference.

Take this gobsmackingly good tune from the last movement of Sibelius’ 2nd symphony. Sibelius, about whom you can read more in an earlier post in November 2016 (and I would immodestly suggest you do) is as synonymous with Finnish music, as Elgar is with British. He led a long life, into his 90s, despite (or maybe because of?) having a healthy diet of vodka and cigars. It is all the more surprising for the fact that the inclement climate and condition of his homeland at the time of his birth meant that the average length of lifespan was just a third of that.

The tune is huge, expansive, and everything is then about returning us to it. The combination of cellos, woodwind and brass in a quickening pace alert you to this, but it’s as if Sibelius doesn’t want to arrive there too soon. There is melancholy aplenty here, and time for inward reflection, be patient with it; but ultimately a triumphant shift into a major key leaves us almost shattered with exuberance. Ignore all the white tie and tails stuff, (Leonard Bernstein with one of the world’s great orchestras, The Vienna Philharmonic), this is a magnificent sound and you will find it quite hard to get the tune out of your head.

Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s just over 15 minutes: if you don’t have time for it now, make time for it later – it is life-enhancing music. I have an aunt who has a particular fondness for this piece: if you’re reading it, Di, this one’s for you.

Turn up the volume and let the sound take you away from the woes of the world. But maybe pause to think and be grateful for how lucky you are to be able to do so.

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Time Out with Bach

We have a pond outside the barn we are renting, and two days ago, in blissful warmth, I witnessed a truly amusing spectacle. It involved a couple of ducks.

For fear of frightening them away, I did not dare approach close enough to capture it on film. For a full five minutes, two of them, side by side and just inches apart, were dipping their beaks below the water and providing a display of perfectly synchronised feeding, their backs erect and feet flapping together. Each time they emerged together at exactly the same time, before simultaneously  resuming their coordinated display.

’A poor life this if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’

It was a scene of purest innocence. Mesmerising and joyful in its playfulness. A reminder that with all the anger around us, there are simple things on standby to lighten the mood and bring a smile.

Music can do this, too. I was tempted to share an angry passage with you today, but I will hold fire on The Rite of Spring for a little longer. It’s fabulous, dramatic, and outrageous; but it will not fulfill the much-needed escapist category.

For that we need the trusted hand of Bach. In particular, his Six Brandenburg Concertos. And, even more particularly, his third (and shortest).

If you’ve ever wondered where the title came from, it’s the dedicatee: Bach presented them to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt in around 1720. (Pub quiz trivia fact number 1.)

Number 3 is my favourite, not because of its brevity or familiarity, but because of its unalloyed optimism. It has three movements, the outer two separated by a couple of chords which go by the grandiose definition of a ‘Phrygian half-cadence’. (Pub quiz trivia number 2.) It’s best described as the sort of phrase you would set to ‘Amen’. Here it acts as a moment to pause and take breath before one last assault of exuberance.

This recording gets the brief right. You have to remember that there were no conductors at the time of Bach and these pieces were led by one of the players, in this case the blond guy third left. Eye contact is therefore essential and you do not need to be a body language expert to see how much these players are enjoying their task, some, perhaps, more than others, resulting in this exhilarating performance.

And perfect synchronicity, too.

So take time out today, spare yourself ten minutes by clicking on the image below for a palliative as good as any.




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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