‘The best of me’ – Elgar

Today is Sir Bobby Charlton’s birthday.

Where on earth is he going with that?, I hear you thinking.

Bobby Charlton was a boyhood hero of many; but his appeal was not confined to young fanatics alone. My late father revered him as much as he did Arnold Palmer. So it was almost a dream come true that, through circumstances too lengthy to explain here, Dad was Charlton’s exclusive host and guide at Trooping the Colour about ten years ago.

For this more senior fan, the highlight of the gloriously sunny day, was when Charlton suggested walking back to his hotel and accepting Dad’s request to escort him. It was probably about a mile, but every recognition was acknowledged, every request for an autograph graciously and patiently provided. It gave lie to the saying that you should never meet your heroes.

And whilst on the subject of his heroes, another, of a completely different kind, was John Henry Newman, (1801-1890) who converted from a Church of England priest to a Catholic one, and became a Cardinal. This Sunday, he will go a step or two further and  be made a saint. Newman was the writer of the poem The Dream of Gerontius, set to music by Elgar, and about which I wrote in April 2017 (see Archives, right). The poem tells of the passing of a man’s soul through death (the name coming from the Greek geron, old man) and its escort by a guardian angel to judgment and purgatory. The text includes words to the hymns Firmly I believe and truly and Praise to the Holiest. 

It is a magnificent choral work, (Elgar wrote ‘This is the best of me’ at the foot of the score) in which I once sang at the Royal Festival Hall, and today I am plucking out those few minutes as the soul, accompanied by the angel, approaches judgment with the mighty acclaim ‘Praise to the holiest’. It is about as confident an affirmation of belief as you will find in all music: the words of the hymn embody all that it is to be a Christian, with Elgar’s music building to this huge statement after the angel’s brief introduction. And it doesn’t stop there, but culminates in a massive and enduring note, with the line ‘Most sure in all his ways.’

It actually doesn’t matter what your religious persuasion is, or whether you don’t have one at all: neither will be a barrier to your appreciation of these few minutes.

A final, and personal, thought on birthdays. If my father were alive today, he would be 93; but he would also be celebrating his youngest sibling and my very dear godmother, Pat, reaching her 90th birthday – as well as joining two older sisters in their 90s. Funny to see how you can forge an unlikely link between Charlton, Dad, Newman, Elgar, and Pat: heroes all of them to me, but today this has to be for Pat. Happy birthday to my terrific godmother!

Click on the image – and don’t be shy with the volume.



Take a recess with Poulenc

‘Welcome back.’

It’s always struck me as an odd greeting when live programmes on television, such as the evening news, open with this phrase after a thirty-second commercial break. ‘I didn’t go anywhere, actually, you’re the ones who decided to leave, not me,’ is the thought that often crosses my mind.

So I shall go with ‘Hello again,’ for I have been absent for a couple of months. Moving into a new house with no wi-fi for eight weeks has tested patience to near breaking point, but the thrill of finally having sound again has reinvigorated my urge to share music with you at a time when it is much needed. We seem to lurch from one shambles to another.

Amidst all this chaos, music is the one enduring constant. What else has the ability to take us out of ourselves, to allow us to inhabit another space away from whatever life throws at us, to silence world noise for a few moments, and hence to put everything else around us on hold? Drink and drugs may do it for some, but the full benefits we get  from music come from dedicated and attentive listening, not merely hearing, thereby ensuring our willing surrender to it and the need to return for more.

And the need is very great just now, especially for an element of calm. Which is why I have turned to the French composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), a name which will be new to many, and might not be that well known to those it isn’t. Despite his output being prodigious, Poulenc (pronounced Poolank) has struggled to earn the respect and coverage he deserves, possibly because much of his early work, notably his songs, is seen as light-hearted, even frivolous; a perception which his later religious, and more serious pieces, helped to reverse.

Coming from a prosperous family, Poulenc was not expected to follow a musical career, but his mother was a decent pianist and music was always in the house. Both parents died while Francis was a teenager, and it fell to his teacher, Ricardo Viñes, to encourage the young man to compose, in the first instance by introducing him to Georges Auric who became a life-long friend and mentor. During his musical development, Poulenc drew upon all sorts of composers for his inspiration, old and contemporary, but in the end there is definitely a style which you can pin down as his own: it is one which combines his love of simple melody – with a dash of brief quirkiness thrown in to the mix.

Simplistic it may be to say so, but it is, perhaps, a reflection of his anything-but-straightforward personal life. He proposed marriage to one lady, but the combination of her involvement with another man and her discovery that Poulenc was gay, was never likely to have her rushing into his arms. He did, nevertheless, father a girl elsewhere, who, in a precursor to the fictitious Wilson-Pike relationship in Dad’s Army, grew up never knowing him to be her father. But his sexual predilictions were predominantly elsewhere and there were affairs aplenty.

Back to that style of tune and quirkiness. Here is the 2nd movement of his Concerto for Two Pianos. The whole piece can be seen as a combination of mild ridicule of the standard approach to concerto-writing with a reverence to those names he respected – Ravel, Stravinsky; and in this extract, Mozart. It’s a lovely, simple Mozart tune, the Elvira Magdalene reference clear, with eerie Poulenc dissonances thrown in here and there, before returning to a gentle, if abrupt, conclusion. The man had a sense of humour, but that does not make his output lightweight: dig out his Organ Concerto with Strings and Timpani, it is rivetting.

There is no dialogue between one piano and the other here, you cannot really tell them apart. It is just a case of two are better than one. The sound and picture qualities are not the finest, but I have chosen it to show you the man himself at the keyboard, even if perhaps past his playing best.

So leave the chaos for five minutes and just let go.

Click on the image –







Harmony Cesar Franck’s way.

There are times when it can seem irrelevant to be writing about the pleasures of classical music, and in recent weeks it has felt just like that.

Trust me, if by chance you are reading this in 2050, the political climate of 2020 in the UK stretched the definition of the word ‘bizarre’ way beyond the help of Thesaurus. And we’re only in July.

Amidst all this, we are enjoying a summer of such exhilarating sport, providing all sorts of excuses to become idle in submitting a blog. A thoroughly likeable Irishman won our Open Championship on Irish soil yesterday; and only a week before, England became world cricket champions on home turf after such an extraordinary one-day game, which, if described in a book, would probably have been rejected by any sensible publisher as in the realms of fantasy.

I have noticed this with other sites I follow: some have definitely gone on hold, or perhaps on recess.

So it is time to get back in the groove, especially with another pending distraction looming; namely, the Ashes.

It has always struck me as odd that the violin sonata does not include the word ‘piano’ in its title, because as far as I know, every sonata written for the violin has always had a keyboard instrument of some sort for accompaniment. Many of the big names, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Schubert, Strauss and more have included these in their huge output; but since I have written about these in the past, it’s a good opportunity to call on César Franck (1822-1890).

His fellow French composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) observed that ‘César Franck was single-minded. To have found a beautiful harmony sufficed to make his day happy.’

This is to simplify the voluminous work of a composer which had long-lasting influence in France. Franck was a particularly gifted organist, especially when it came to improvisation (those moments when you have to fill the gap between one part of a service and another.) His father was the ultimate helicopter parent, making Leopold Mozart look like an amateur with his son, Wolfgang. His pushiness led to a breakdown of relations between them, but they were eventually reconciled.

Despite not being appreciated during his lifetime, his compositions finally gave some gravitas to French music, long since the inferior to German. Not enough of his work gets an airing these days, many of us will only hear his Panis Angelicus with any frequency.

Back to that violin sonata, written in 1886, and the work which finally established his worth, and now, possibly the most famous one ever written. My observation about the lack of recognition for the piano is particularly apt for this piece, which is quite fiendish in parts: Franck had large hands and may have underestimated the difficulty of the part for others.

Here is the last movement, the fourth. All of the movements have a common theme and this last one is written in canonic form, where one instrument leads and then the other follows. Debussy’s comment above is embodied in this piece and in this recording. A gorgeous melody is played with lots of colour, sensitive where it needs to be, and majestic without being overbearing.

And now that I’ve written this, it strikes me that my opening paragraph is a load of nonsense. A few minutes of this makes everything better.

And, by the way, if you agree and like what I write and the music I share, perhaps I can prey on you to send the link to a few others? It will motivate me to be a little more disciplined in posting in future.

Clink image/link –


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.

Image result for arromanches beach

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.

Click image



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.

Click on links below –








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.

Image result for stravinsky rite of spring

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.