A concert last night by students of the Hochschule für Musik revealed much about standards in Swiss higher education. The ambitious programme contained Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) and Six for six percussionists, Feldman’s Instruments II, Improvisations sur Mallarmé II (No. 3 from Pli selon pli) and Ligeti’s Piano Concerto.
The two Cage works are eminently performable by students, as was proved. I need not have been so sceptical that they could pull off the Boulez and the Ligeti, however. The two soloists coped brilliantly with the distinct virtuosic requirements of each work: soprano Céline Wasmer singing Boulez’s difficult lines with otherworldly expressivity; pianist Krill Zwegintsow providing machine-like stability in the Ligeti. Student Ensemble Diagonal likewise provided sensitivity in the former, thrillingly focus in the latter. Only in the Feldman did the need for fine control tax the players to the point where it was in danger of interfering with the meaning of the music. And this hardly surprised; the Feldman, which is a long span of pianissimo entries, often in difficult tessituras, requires phenomenal control. Conductor Jürg Henneberger, who is obviously a bit of a fixture here in Basel (he also conducted the Ensemble Phoenix concert on 16th), did a superb job leading these youngsters.
Tomorrow, the Hochschule in cooperation with OperAvenir, give their first performance of a new production of the Rape of Lucretia at Theater Basel. It’s one of the few Britten operas I don’t know at all, so I hope to visit before the end of the run on 25th April.
Talking of opera, 11th April sees the world première of Tansy Davies’s Between Worlds with ENO (performing at the Barbican, not the Coliseum). The title of the work derives from the dreadful scenario it describes: a group of people are trapped in one of the World Trade Center Towers, above where it has been hit and therefore unable to descend. They are, quite literally, ‘caught between earth and heaven, life and death.’ There are a total of eight performances the last being on 25th April.
There are two chances in the UK to hear works by emerging composers. The first is at Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on 1st April, where selected composers from the workshop stage of the Composition:Wales project will have their pieces performed by BBC NOW under Jac van Steen. Meanwhile in London the LSO Soundhub project will perform chamber compositions by Maxim Boon, Laurence Osborn, Helen Papaioannou, Robert Szymanek, Laurie Tompkins and Aaron Holloway-Nahum; all of whom are in the second year of their membership of the scheme.
The Budapest Spring Festival runs from April 10th–26th. As well as more standard orchestral fare, there are a few premières on offer. On 24th April there is there first chance to hear Péter Nógrádi’s Partita - Four paintings by Csontváry for the string orchestra, Zoltán Kovács’s Pictures of Taormina and László Dubrovay’s Csontváry - 3 symphonic images for orchestra. There are also works by Miklós Kocsár and Péter Tóth. The day after is the Hungarian première of Gyula Fekete’s piano concerto The Dream of the Red Chamber.
Other notable premières this month include James Macmillan’s St Luke’s Passion at the Barbican on 5th (London première); Robert Matthew-Walker’s Sonata No. 2 for violin and piano (world première) at Wigmore Hall on 12th; Jake Heggie's Camille Claudel: Into the Fire (European première) at the Barbican on 14th; David Matthews’ Symphony No. 8 (world première) at Bridgewater Hall on 17th; Georg Friedrich Haas’s Atthis (UK première) at Royal Opera House on 23rd–25th; and Christopher Rouse Prospero’s Rooms (UK première) at the Barbican on 24th. The New York Philharmonic are also in London around the middle of the month, bringing with them a taste of their Contact! series in the form of works by Daniel Bjarnasson, Timo Andres, Missy Mazzoli, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Shulamit Ran at the Barbican on 18th.
A ‘Happy Birthday’ to Pierre Boulez, who turned 90 just the day-before-yesterday. If you would like to listen to selections from the Barbican Total Immersion day, this is available on iPlayer for the next three weeks. There is also a 45-minute tribute programme with Petroc Trelawny, Paul Driver and Morag Grant. The celebrations of his work continue into April with Peter Eötvös conducting Livre pour cordes and Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna with the LSO at the Philharmonie de Paris on 20th and Matthias Pintscher conducting Syrinx, Memoriale and Sur Incises with Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Barbican on 28th.
Another couple of interesting concerts here in Basel. I say in Basel, but the first was actually in Germany. One of the curiosities of this city is that its suburbs are in three countries: Switzerland, Germany and France. It goes a long way to explaining why everyone seems fluent in at least three languages.
I headed a bit further into neighbouring territory on 13th, however: to the Konzerthaus Freiburg (see first photo), where the Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg were playing Lachenmann’s Tableau, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto Nr. 3 and Berio’s Sinfonia.
I was there mostly for the Berio, which I’ve never heard in concert. It was every bit as brilliant as I’d hoped, especially the crazy parody in the third movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Lachenmann – an immensely tall and impressive figure – was present for the performance of his Tableau. The work, I confess, left me nonplussed. Despite, to borrow a phrase from my more enthusiastic companion, the work being like a beautiful garden of sound, I had difficulty connecting these sounds into a comprehensible whole.
On 16th I headed to Bahnhof für Neue Musik, a little bit, perhaps, like Basel’s version of Nonclassical in London. It has a similar relaxed approach to concert going and makes use of a pretty interesting venue: the Gare du Nord Station near the border with Germany. There is a rather grand, if slightly faded, bar. You are then free to take your drink into the concert area, which used to be the station’s first class waiting room (second photo).
The concert programme consisted of Ensemble Phoenix Basel playing two works by young composers that had been awarded prizes by the group: Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s bulle apenas and Matthias Renaud’s Concerto for Piano and Ensemble. Both were written in response to John Cage’s Sixteen Dances, which formed the second half. Of the two, Vladimir Guicheff Bogacz’s was easily the most successful, partly because of the relative reserve with which it deployed the four available percussion players. It was a trap that Matthias Renaud’s Concerto did not, sadly, avoid; the work becoming a chaotic barrage of percussion sounds and extended techniques. It was a relief when the Cage came, which was an object lesson in deploying generous resources, using few notes, to maximum effect.
One curiosity here has been the difference in pricing and audience attendance at the concerts I’ve been to. The large hall at Freiburg, Germany was completely sold out for a concert that consisted of mostly newish music. It cost €11. The Gare du Nord concert was 30 CHF (almost the same in euros); the Feldmann, Ligeti, Stahnke concert earlier in the month was 50CHF (which nearly provoked a wallet attack). These are prices that make me, a person that is enthusiastic about new music, think twice. They seem to have the same effect on others: neither Swiss concert was well attended.
DG have just reissued Boulez’s Le Domaine Musical collection, which can be added to my earlier guide to the composer’s recordings. It features performances from the seminal Paris concerts between 1956 and 1967, including works by Stockhausen, Berio, Messiaen, Varese, Kagel, Henze, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and, of course, Boulez. Perhaps, most intriguing of all, is the inclusion of two works by Giovanni Gabrieli, presumably to give context to other compositions on one of the programmes. Gabrieli as sixteenth century modernist, perhaps?
Also just reissued on the same label is Max Richter’s 2004 album The Blue Notebooks both on CD and vinyl, the latter being a sure sign of its popularity. I’d check it out on Spotify first if you are in any way tempted: you will either love or hate its zen-like simplicity.
Two Naxos disks containing chamber music that is neglected for different reasons. The first is a collection of music for violin and piano by little-known composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986). If you’d like to get an idea of the style it’s worth checking out his disk of chamber music with clarinet, available on Spotify. It’s not at all what I expected: by turns romantically lyrical, quirkily dissonant and ascetically controlled. Whilst Bernstein is well-known for his musicals and handful of choral and orchestral pieces, a new disk explores some of his music for piano, including an early Piano Sonata and his Anniversaries, a sequence of short pieces written for people close to him. Also on Naxos is a disk of two Malcolm Arnold films scores, The Roots of Heaven and David Copperfield played by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra.
On WERGO Rolf Reim’s new disk contains four works, all of which draw upon story telling and theatricality to achieve their effect. The style is uncompromising but, at the same time, full of lightness and humour. This is particularly apparent in Lenz in Moskau, for trumpet, trombone, guitar, piano, two drums and recorded voice where a story is unfolded simultaneously in voices and instruments, the brilliantly sardonic interjections being easily as pictorial as the spoken text. Also on WERGO this month is Detlev Mueller-Siemens’ new disk TRACES, which contains four works for chamber ensemble written between 2002 and 2009; and Charlotte Seither’s Equal Ways of Difference that has five works written for combinations of violin, cello and piano.
On Métier David Gorton’s powerfully uncompromising new disc contains Orfordness for piano, Austerity Measures II for oboe and string quartet, Fosdyke Wash for piano and string quartet and the Second Sonata for Cello, with electronics. Orfordness, which also lends its name to the title of the disc, includes taped USAF messages about a UFO sighting. ‘This is eerie, this is strange’, says one of the men in the recording, a description that could well be applied to this unnervingly creepy music.
Sure to be popular is the Tallis Scholars’ Tintinnabuli, a programme of works celebrating the 80th birthday year of Arvo Pärt. Extracts are available to listen to here. The performances, typically of this group, sound gorgeous.
Two, as yet, unreleased disks worth looking forward to. Tomorrow NMC release a new disk of horn music by Peter Maxwell Davies, Gerald Barry, Colin Matthews, Huw Watkins, David Matthews, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Robin Holloway with the Nash Ensemble, Huw Watkins on piano and Paul Watkins on cello. At the time of writing extracts were not available, thought that sure to change on release day. Less imminent, though available now for pre-order, is Tyondai Braxton’s label debut on NMC on May 12th with HIVE, a recording of eight pieces that debuted at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2013. Scout I, the last track on the disk is available to listen to now.
Despite waxing lyrical about the joys of being on the road, the comfort of a Pembrokeshire Christmas almost persuaded me to give up my nomadic lifestyle. I have finally, however, dragged myself away God’s own county and am back in Basel, Switzerland. Not particularly adventurous, perhaps, but the need for change has to be balanced by the need to get on with projects – for now Basel is the best place to continue work on the Dutilleux sketches, which is increasingly looking like it might occupy me for the next ten years.
It’s exciting to be back in a city with a thriving cultural life. On Friday I heard the Basel Sinfonietta play Ligeti’s Hamburgishes Konzert, Manfred Stahnke’s Trace Des Sorciers and Morton Feldman’s Coptic Light at the Musiksaal.
I’d heard the Stahnke in rehearsal the day before, where it had left me pretty unconvinced; there seemed to be little sense of structural cohesion and the players appeared to struggle with the microtonal tuning. It was strange, therefore, to be so won over in the concert. The balance was better in the hall and the many generous ideas did seem to form a larger narrative. A reminder not to rush to judgement.
The Sinfonietta played the Ligeti manfully, in particular Olivier Darbellay coped superbly with the extravagant extremes of tessitura in the solo horn part. The work remains, however, frighteningly difficult to perform. Four natural horns trying to pitch complex chords is a recipe for ensemble problems.
The Feldman presents its own issues, though here this is to do with balance and control in a long, essentially static, span. The Sinfonietta played brilliantly, however, with conductor Michael Wendeberg allowing the work to unfold without fuss. It was a disappointment when the piece ended, so hypnotically had it held me.
Boulez seems to be much on musicians’ lips in Basel. He is, by all accounts, in poor health and may not be able much to take part in his 90th birthday celebrations. One Boulez in Basel story crops up again and again, however, and is worth retelling.
Boulez had a long association with Paul Sacher, the founder of the city’s famous music library, and, until his death in 1999, would stay with him when visiting the city. This no longer being an option, in 2001 Boulez stayed in a local hotel. This was, unfortunately, just after the terrorist attacks in New York.
On seeing his name pop up somewhere on a computer, the local police did a background check on what, to them, was an entirely unknown figure. It had somehow found its way onto a list of possible suspects, perhaps because of some of his famously intemperate remarks about burning down opera houses and destroying all art of the past.
Given the attitude of Muslim extremists to music and other forms of art, as so disgustingly demonstrated by Isis recently, it is perhaps not surprising that the police were somewhat alarmed. Boulez was raided at his hotel, his passport and train ticket seized. After further investigations, and presumably some red faces, the situation was ironed out.
I’m told that the next time he visited Basel the Chief of Police was on hand to welcome him with a large bouquet.
Harpsichord Music by Graham Lynch and François Couperin. Assi Karttunen (harpsichord). Divine Art dda25120.
Alex Ross describes Graham Lynch’s style as puzzling ‘over the classic distinction between ‘tonal’ and ‘atonal’, writing in praise of the neither-here-nor-there.’ It’s a pretty good analysis, though in the context of the works on this disk it, perhaps, underplays the extent to which the music is made up of recognisable (and therefore accessible) tonal elements. I’d also be coy about using the word ‘atonal’. Whilst often correct in the sense of being ‘not tonal’, the surface of the works abound with generous and attractive melodic writing and, even when the harmony is nicely unpredictable, the extensive use of pivot pitches always keeps the music centred.
Beyond the River God, for example, presents three tonally derived ideas at the outset: a spread extended chord, a lovely melody and rocking homophonic chords. They appear throughout, sometimes obviously in a cyclical sense, sometimes appearing to lurk under the surface directing harmonic traffic. Ay! is tonal (though always interestingly so), being made up of flowing arpeggios that are given point and poise by the gradually emerging tango rhythms beneath. Admiring York Waterfall and Present-Past-Future-Present are more stark, with In Peterna lying somewhere in between.
Structural matters are handled with admirable lucidity. The shape of Beyond the River God derives from Lynch’s use of the rondeau/couplet idea associated with the seventeenth century school of French clavecinists, most notably, François Couperin (five of whose works appear on the disk). In Admiring Yoro Waterfall the opening group of material, notably a two note whole tone figure, features several times, then gives way to a more obviously pictorial representation of the waterfall before returning at the end, all occurring over a carefully worked out pitch ground plan. The Six Strings from In Petenera elucidates a repeated phrygian idea based round a single pitch. Present-Past-Future-Present opens with a thoroughly explored ‘walking’ idea that reappears in the final movement. All the works also have a strong feeling of cadence, often underlined by a moment of silence before the launching of a new phrase, making the musical shapes easy to follow. Only in Sound Sketches did I feel that the musical argument was, perhaps, a little too pared down, neither the simple ground plan or arpeggiated surface providing enough interest. It is, anyway, only a very small piece at the end of the disk.
The pitfalls of a generous (nearly 80 minute) programme of music on a instrument with limited means of dynamic and timbral variation are obvious enough. In some ways, interpolating the music of Couperin with that of Lynch was a necessary practicality; the disc contains all of Lynch’s harpsichord music to date which, by itself, would not have been enough to fill the disk. It also, however, provides a happy solution to the ‘lack of contrast’ issue – the ear is never tired by one style or the other. Also, I have to say, the quality of Lynch’s writing is very much a match for that of his illustrious predecessor. Not that it’s a matter of competition, since the two styles sit very comfortably together: though, Beyond the River God excluded, Lynch seems to want to avoid drawing comparisons between his style and that of his antecedents, in its lucidity, fecundity and understanding of the medium there are definite parallels.
I’m not in a position to judge the authenticity of the ornamental minefield of the Couperin except to say that the performances strike me as stylish and assured. In the Lynch Karttunen plays with verve, commitment and a total grasp of the structural issues at play. A highly rewarding disk.
If you’ve not already been, Christian Marclay’s solo exhibition continues throughout March at the White Cube Bermondsey. It features his new video installation Pub Crawl in which he ‘coaxes sound from the empty glasses, bottles and cans that he finds abandoned on the streets of East London during early morning walks. In a series of projections that run the length of the gallery’s corridor, these discarded vessels are hit, rolled and crushed, forming a lively sound track that echoes throughout the space.’ The exhibition also features shorts concerts on 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd and 29th in which the London Sinfonietta will play new commissions that respond to the space.
At Wigmore Hall on 4th the Britten Sinfonia première a new work by Dutch composer Joey Roukens whilst Magnus Lindberg’s new piece will played by Leila Josefowicz (violin) and John Novacek (piano) on 19th. Both works are, as yet, untitled. Pitch up to learn more.
On 8th at the Barbican there is the chance to see the UK première production of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland with a multimedia staging by Netia Jones, which will combine ‘the darkly imaginative illustrations of gonzo-artist Ralph Steadman with live action, interactive animated projections, eye-popping costumes and choreography.’
On 31st March at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff BBCNOW under Jac van Steen
will workshop new works by Charlie Barber, Gareth Churchill, John Cooney, Nathan James Dearden, Jordan Hirst, Ray Leung, Nicholas Mills and John Senter. Several of these pieces will then be selected for public performance the following day.
An Englishman in New York, Thomas Adès makes his NYPhil conducting debut on 12th, conducting the US première of his own Totentanz alongside works by Beethoven and Berlioz. On 7th the NYPhil present one of their Contact! concerts, this time exploring music from Nordic countries, including premières from Per Nørgård, Kaija Saariaho and Ðuro Živković.
Also in New York there are two residencies at The Stone, a space dedicated to experimental and avant-garde music. The first, beginning on 17th, features composer/accordionist Guy Klucevek and will feature three world and seven New York premières. The second, beginning on 26th, features composer Lukas Ligeti with a number of guest artists including Marilyn Crispell (piano), Susie Ibarra (percussion) and Eyal Maoz (guitar).
In France, finally, Dai Fujikura’s new opera Solaris receives its première on 5th March at Théâtre des Champs Élysées, with a subsequent performance on 7th. It is based upon the same 1961 Stanislaw Lem novel that inspired the famous film adaptation by Andreï Tarkovsky. Ensemble Intercontemporain are conducted by Erik Nielsen.
A bit of good news for anyone interested in the future of ENO.
For the last couple of years Arts Council England have been implementing vicious cut to the funding of ENO, one of our most innovative opera companies. In a press release today, however, they announced ‘special funding arrangements’ for the organisation, effectively an enormous capitulation. The release is as follows:
12 February 2015
The Arts Council today (12 February) announces that two organisations, English National Opera and Colchester’s firstsite gallery, will not be admitted into its National portfolio of organisations for 2015-18. Instead they will be placed under special funding arrangements.
The proposed new National portfolio was announced on 1 July 2014 but confirmation of membership is subject to negotiating a funding agreement. As well as showing they will produce excellent work, all companies offered National portfolio status must demonstrate their business plans and their governance are robust enough to ensure the organisations are sustainable over a three-year funding term. In the case of these two companies the Arts Council has continuing concerns which it wants to see addressed.
The special funding arrangements with ENO and firstsite, which will run for two years, and one year respectively, will allow the Arts Council to work closely with each company as they review their business models and governance and to set rigorous milestones to monitor their progress. Entry to the portfolio at a later date will be possible, but will depend on the extent of progress made.
The Arts Council will take decisions on the future funding of both organisations following the implementation of these special arrangements.
English National Opera
ENO is offered funding for two years. The agreement will combine elements of the NPO and transition funding agreements previously proposed in July 2014. £12.38m revenue funding per year, with an additional £6.13m of transition funding, will be made available to the company over the two years to enable it to operate and make changes to its business model.
A considerable amount of work has been undertaken by English National Opera to address the challenges identified during the Arts Council’s Opera and Ballet analysis and the risks highlighted in its National portfolio application. However, a number of significant risks associated with the proposed business plan remain.
This decision has been taken following a period of working very closely with ENO on their proposed funding agreement, further detailed analysis of their business model by financial consultants and recent uncertainty about ENO’s senior leadership team.
firstsite is offered funding for one year. The funding agreement will combine elements of NPO revenue funding (£814,517) and transition funding, to be confirmed, which will enable firstsite to operate and restructure.
This decision has been taken following a consultation period with key local stakeholders and funding partners, revised financial accounts from firstsite and an independent analysis of the organisation.
Althea Efunshile, Acting Chief Executive, Arts Council England said: “The Arts Council’s role is to ensure that we get the best value for the taxpayer’s money by investing in well run companies who delight audiences with brilliant work.
“With the very occasional exception, all the organisations we fund do just that.
“No one is doubting that ENO is capable of extraordinary artistic work but we have serious concerns about their governance and business model and we expect them to improve or they could face the removal of our funding. The challenges are similar for firstsite.
“However, we believe these organisations can inspire audiences long into the future and it is our hope and expectation that this happens.”
The National portfolio now includes of 668 arts organisations (NPOs) and 21 Major Partner Museums (MPMs). 46 arts organisations join the portfolio and 60 leave. A final list of NPOs and MPMs will be published on 31 March.
The investment in NPOs for 2015/16 will be £339.5million, compared to £341.4m in 2014/15.
For more information and a wry take on this volte face, have a look at this article by Norman Lebrecht.
From March 19th–22nd the biennial London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music is holding a small series of events to keep the spirit of the festival going in its fallow year (the next full festival being in 2016). Cheekily, but appropriately, labelled ‘Between the (Y)ears’ this mini festival looks pretty interesting.
The theme is contemporary Italian music. It kicks off on 19th with a harp workshop with Gabriella Dall’Olio that explores the writing in Donatoni’s Marches. Both performers and composers are invited to attend. Later that evening the piece will be performed at a wine and nibbles reception along with pieces by Berio, Sollima, Bozzol and Gwyn Pritchard.
On 20th there is a concert by ensemble in residence Flame with guests Laura Monaghan (soprano) and Simone Beneventi (percussion). They will perform Zeno Baldi’s In Punta – a new work from the festival’s 2015 call for scores, as well as pieces by Pierluigi Billone, Giacinto Scelsi and the two festival artistic directors Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari. Later the same evening there will be a video concert featuring Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari and Andrea Cavallari’s Three Flags II.
The final day (Sunday 22nd) features a midday coffee and music concert with another new work from the 2015 call for scores, Lorenzo Troiani’s Sotterranee. In ombra. The other composers on offer are Luciano Berio, Francesco Filidei, Franco Donatoni, Beat Furrer and Luisa Valeria. The festival ends with a closing cocktail and concert at 6pm.
The festival takes place at The Warehouse and The Cello Factory, close to Waterloo in London. Tickets are available here.
There are three new albums on Naxos worth exploring this month: wind band music by Salvador Brotons that includes his Symphony No. 6 and Symphonic Movement No. 7; Patric Standford’s Symphony No. 1 and Cello Concerto; and Argentinian composer Osias Wilenski’s Oboe Concerto and other works.
If you can get past the numinous packaging of Voces 8's new album Lux on Decca, there are some good things to be found on it, including works by Ola Gjeilo, John Tavener, Eriks Esenwalds, Rihards Dubra, Patrick Hawes, Will Todd and Paul Mealor. The modern works are broken up with some appropriately spiritual, though always welcome, lollipops: Tallis’s O Nata Lux, Allegri’s Miserere and a section from Rachmaninov’s Vespers.
Jagoda Szmytka’s new CD Bloody Cherries on WERGO explores physicality of sound and how it relates to the physicality of performance. It includes 7 works: 3 for amplified ensemble, the others for various combinations of amplified ensemble, amplified voices, transducer, electric guitar, cello, flute, piano and drums. The other new release on the label is a programme for saxophone, including works by Arturo Fuentes, Paulo Ferreira Lopes, Juan Camilo Hernández Sánchez, Phivos-Angelos Kollias, Tom Mays, Bernd Schultheis and Agostino Di Scipio.
There are two works for keyboard on Divine Arts. Masque is a follow-up album to Carson Cooman’s well-received disk of organ music Litanies. It features his Preludes and Fugues 1–9, Preghiera and Symphony for Organ played by Erik Simmons on the instrument at Laurenskerk, Rotterdam. Beyond the River God, finally, features the harpsichord music of Graham Lynch and François Couperin.
If some of Boulez’s pronouncements have given the impression of narrow-mindedness in accepting the music of others, his work as a conductor suggests rather the reverse.
Celebrating this part of his career, DG has just released a 44 CD set of Boulez’s recordings of twentieth century works for the label. Whilst much of this includes the usual suspects – the second Viennese school and Boulez’s own works – there is also a great deal which isn’t, including Bartok, Debussy (as far back as Prélude à l’apres-midi), Ravel and plenty of pre-serial Stravinsky. It comes in a rather nice limited edition box set, for £102 in the UK and $223 in the US.
DG is marketing this as the ‘complete’ Boulez 20th century recordings, which it clearly isn’t, since it doesn’t contain a single performance from his DG Mahler cycle. If you wish to have that, the 14 disk set is available at just £37 ($55). I’m aware that Boulez gets mixed reviews in this repertoire, though I think some of the more frequent criticisms – that he can be brilliantly analytical and clear, but sometimes soulless – are often exaggerated. My own favourite Mahler symphony is No. 6 (‘the only sixth, despite the Pastoral’, as Alban Berg said) and Boulez’s interpretation of it with the Vienna Philharmonic (included in this cycle) is brilliant: tempi are ideal, he takes the crucial first movement repeat and the two most powerful parts, the slow movement and vast final movement are superbly shaped and devastating in their impact. I can’t imagine, therefore, that the rest of the set isn’t worth exploring too.
If the 44 CD DG set is a little too much to purchase all at once you can also buy many of the recordings in smaller sets concentrating on one or two composers at a time. There is Boulez conducts Debussy and Ravel (6 CDs, £18.79/$32), Boulez conducts Stravinsky (6 CDs £20/$26) and Boulez conducts Bartok (8 CDs, £30/$30). Particularly recommended is Boulez’s complete survey of the works of Webern (6 CDs, £22/$30). No one understands this repertoire better than him, and that shows in the crystalline clarity of these performances. Also an obvious recommendation is the composer conducting his own complete works (13 CDs, $68/£44).
Boulez has dabbled more than a little in the world of opera. Two productions, both with Patrice Chéreau directing, stand out: his Wagner Ring Cycle for the 1976 centenary performance at Bayreuth and his Janáček From the House of the Dead in 2007. The former was hugely controversial, some believing that Boulez’s conducting lacked the necessary expressivity, was too fast and the singing uneven. Despite this, the production did win many admirers, as this article in The Guardian makes clear. It is available on DVD at DG (having originally been released on Philips). The Janacek, a DVD I own and like a great deal, is an easier recommendation.
Another handsome boxed set worth considering was released at the end of 2014: Sony Classical’s 67 CD survey of the recordings made by Boulez for CBS/American Columbia (67 CDs, $187/£89). Again there is plenty of twentieth century repertoire here including Schoenberg, Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Berio, Carter, Messiaen and works by Boulez himself. Less well-known is Boulez’s fondness for Berlioz, represented here with recordings of Symphonie Fantastique; Lelio, ou Le Reour a la vie; excepts from Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyens and Beatrice et Benedict; Carnaval Romain; Les Nuits d’été; and La Mort de Cléopâtre. Most fascinating of all are the real rarities: Handel’s Water Music, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Wagner’s rarely heard work for choir Love-Feast of the Apostles.
On March 26th Boulez will turn ninety. Even at this grand old age he hasn’t entirely cast off the image of enfant terrible, the man responsible for some of the most intemperate remarks in the history of twentieth century music, including, yes, that one about wishing to burn down all opera houses.
It is an image which, even now, clouds my judgement of his music. There was Boulez the quasi-mathematician who serialised the composer out of the musical process. Boulez, who wished to rip up the past ('It is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All art of the past must be destroyed.'), Boulez who branded any musician who didn’t feel the necessity of the serial method as ‘OF NO USE’ (his capitals).
Boulez’s influence on European cultural life has not, in my opinion, always been healthy. His insistence that his way was the way, looks extraordinarily misguided today. How sad that some composers felt that they had to fall into line with serial orthodoxy or be branded a failure. Neither was this something experienced just by his contemporaries.
I have often pondered the influence that Boulez had on the most significant member of the older generation – Igor Stravinsky – even if it operated indirectly. It’s a curious fact of Stravinsky’s life, especially given his status as probably the greatest composer of the twentieth century, that he was so keen to be accepted by his peers. That surely was a factor in his decision, at the suggestion of Robert Craft, to adopt the serial method.
(You can see this facet of Stravinsky’s character in this superb film by János Darvas where, at 32 minutes, he remembers, with some rancour, an imagined rebuff from Benjamin Britten. A minute before this you also see him, rather too humbly in my opinion, taking advice from Boulez about a mistake in one of his serial works.)
Of course I acknowledge the greatness of these late works – after all, Stravinsky was a superb craftsman; how could they be anything else? Also, I know that many composers (myself included) have benefited from Stravinsky’s rotational take on the serial system. Despite this, I cannot, however hard I try, love them so much as those that came before. I sometimes find myself wishing that Stravinsky had had the confidence to stick to his compositional guns.
One can also forget the institutional power that Boulez has wielded, especially in France. When President Georges Pompidou was looking for a figure to set up a music section as part of a new cultural institution it was Boulez he invited for dinner. When it came to cultural/political influence Boulez, quite literally, ate at the top table.
The meal with the President eventually resulted in IRCAM. Boulez was not, perhaps, the ideal man to wield such institutional power, since he has never been stylistically openminded when dispensing patronage. I think especially of the music of Henri Dutilleux. Despite Dutilleux commissioning the 1948 version of Boulez’s Le soleil des eaux he was not programmed in Boulez’s Domaine Musical concerts, was snubbed by Boulez at the première of his First Symphony and had to wait many years to receive a commission from Ensemble Intercontemporain (a commission he never fulfilled). A style which, however tenuously, retained elements of tonality was, to Boulez, infra dig.
The irony is that Boulez’s own compositional trajectory and also recent interviews, show that he was less dogmatic than he pretended. The early total serial works culminated in Structures I, the ‘ascetic attitude’ of which Ligeti described as ‘akin to compulsion neurosis’. Subsequent works, beginning with Le marteau sans maître, however, showed a loosening of approach to the serial method and even the granting of freedom to performers, especially in allowing them to choose a route through a work (e.g. Third Sonata, Pli selon pli or Domaines).
In a recent interview Boulez has also acknowledged his need to balance the ‘constructivism’ he encountered (and even found ‘a burden’) in the works of the Second Viennese School with a freer approach. He also has talked about how music cannot be compared with science, in that in science things progress, whereas the music of a particular time is not to be considered superior to that of an earlier epoch. It is surely not a huge mental leap to realise that, if works are not to be judged by the mere fact of their chronological position in the canon, then neither should they judged by how completely they adopt the most cutting edge techniques.
So, in this ninetieth birthday year, what are we left with? We are left with the works. A composer is not to be judged by his personal life, writings, in the institutions or colleagues he has championed or the other composers he has conducted. He is only to be judged by his works.
Even here, however, I remain ambivalent. The early experiments with total serialism seem to me to be little more than curiosities of the time. Something that was as inevitable as, say John Cage’s 4’33” and, like it, more of a thought experiment than art. I even find Le marteau sans maître, acknowledged by many as a key twentieth century masterpiece, as curiously colourless, despite the influence of gamelan and the like.
I have listened to most of the works following Le marteau. A few have really grabbed me – I cannot forget, for example, the exhilaration I first felt on hearing the orchestral version of Notations, a work of tremendous power – though others have left me bemused. Even with the latter category, however, it is impossible to reject them outright. Sometimes I listen to a piece of music and I know straight away I don’t like it, usually because I can see through it. I have never had this feeling when listening to Boulez. A cynic would point to the obfuscatory complexity of his scores, which tends to make easy judgements difficult. I disagree; with Boulez one always senses a profound musical intelligence at work. This commands respect and a desire to understand better.
For many aficionados, then, 2015 will be a chance to wish Boulez a hearty ‘Happy Birthday’ and revel in performances of his works. I wish him many happy returns too. I will not so much be revelling in his works, however, but trying to understand them. Like parts of his oeuvre, it is likely to remain a work in progress.
Some videos worth exploring
2014 interview with BBVA Foundation
2012 interview with Universal Edition
2011 Boulez on Mahler
2010 round table discussion, including interesting information about the founding of IRCAM
2010 Boulez on Cage
2009 interview on winning the Kyoto Prize
1995 interview in Amsterdam. Bad sound but Boulez is articulate and witty, so worth a look
Musical creativity and mathematics
Boulez talking about Pierrot Lunaire and his own Eclat (subtitles in Spanish)
Boulez talking about his Sur Incises
Boulez at Biennale Musica 5th October 2012. Interviewed by Robert Piencikowski and Claude Samuel
Pierre Boulez talking to Michele Dall'Ongaro
UK premières begin next month with a new work by Ben Comeau, winner of the Cambridge University Composers’ Workshop, which will be played by the Britten Sinfonia at Wigmore Hall on 4th. Gerald Barry’s song Crossing the Bar, will receive its first performance at the same venue on 24th. A small work, perhaps, but part of an intriguing programme: a selection of 17 songs for soprano and small ensemble commissioned over a ten year period by John Woolrich and BCMG Artist-in-Association Mary Wiegold. The programme reads practically like a who’s who of contemporary music, including, as it does, such figures as: Harvey, Babbit, Adès, Birtwistle, Ruders and Sciarrino. That programme will be repeated at the CBSO Centre on 27th.
Mica Levi, also known by her stage name Micachu, also has an, as yet, untitled work to be premièred by the London Sinfonietta on 27 February as part of their ‘Spectrum of Sound’ concert, which will explore the advances in sonic manipulation over recent years, tracing a path from the pioneers of the 20th century to spectral music of the 21st. The concert also contains the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Open spaces for 12 string instruments and 2 percussion as well as works by Xenakis and Vivier.
The London Sinfonietta are joined by the BBC Singers on 12th February for a programme of vocal music by James Macmillan, which includes the UK première of Górecki’s Church Songs and MacMillan’s Alleluia. At City Halls, Glasgow, meanwhile, the BBC SSO will, on 28th, give the UK premières of Manfred Trojahn’s Herbstmusik/Sinfonischer Satz and Vito Žuraj’s Hawk-eye (horn concerto). The concert will also mark Boulez’s 90th birthday with a performance of his …explosante-fixe…, appropriately so, since the work received its UK première on Scottish soil more than 20 years ago. The concert will be recorded for Radio 3’s Hear and Now programme, so there will be the chance to hear the programme even if you can’t make it to the venue.
At the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, NYC on 5th February is the world première of Missy Mazzoli’s Quartet for Queen Mab as part of a portrait concert that includes works for strings, voice and electronics. Also at the Miller Theatre on February 19th is a portrait concert of Italian composer Stefano Gervasoni, containing his works: Sviete tihi, Six lettres à l'obscurité (und zwei Nachrichten) and In dir. At SubCulture the NY Philharmonic Contact! series explores new music from Israel on 9th February, including the New York Première of Avner Dorman’s Jerusalem Mix.
The Silk Road Ensemble, which explores the cultural traditions of the famous trade route from which it takes it name, will give a number of concerts in NYC, starting with a meet the ensemble session on February 18th at the David Rubinstein Atrium. The ensemble has commissioned many new works over its fifteen year existence, so there is sure to be much of interest.
The Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival (27th February–1st March) celebrates its 10th anniversary at the end of February. The theme this year, is ‘Biomusic’. Professor Eduardo Miranda, Professor in Computer Music at Plymouth University, explains:
‘We are witnessing a shift of paradigm in computer science as scientists are looking to building new kinds of computers: biocomputers. Machines that combine silicone processors made with microbiological organisms. We are interested…in developing new musical systems based on biocomputers.’
His new piece, Biocomputer Music, for piano and biocomputer – possibly the first work of its type – can be heard on the last day of the festival. In a similar vein, on 28th February, the gala concert will feature three new works, each inspired in different ways inspired by nature and biology: Alex Kirke’s Orchestral Processing Unit, Anandi Sala Casanova’s The Hidden Sea and Linas Baltas’s DNA. There are is also a film, installations and a symposium (registration required) exploring the festival theme. More information and an interesting video exploring the programme is available on the festival website.
Also on Wergo (see my previous post) is Japanese composer Keiko Harada’s recent disk, F-fragments featuring solo piano, accordion and duet of the same. F-Fragments, the work that lends the disk its name is a movingly austere meditation on the events surrounding the Fukushima disaster in 2012. It is followed by Book I, a virtuoso work for solo accordion that brings to mind the Ligeti Etudes or Berio Sequenzas and Nach Bach, for solo piano, a meditation on the Well-Tempered Clavier. The musical language is commendably pure, if a little austere.
Other recent Wergo releases (not, as yet, Spotifyable) include: Mark Andre’s …auf…, a sequence of three orchestral pieces that ‘search for new resonances and means for transitions between sounds’; works by Ukranian composer Valentin Silvestrov; a complete box set of Hans Werner Henze’s 10 Symphonies played by Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; and John Cage’s so-called ‘Number Pieces’ One7 and Four6 in versions for piano.
On ECM records, Souvenance is a selection of works from oud player and composer Anouar Brahem. I’ve only heard the preview track January, available on YouTube, but it’s pretty clear that the key word here is cross-over, with his style mixing up elements of European classical and popular cultures with music from his native Tunisia. The two-disc recording is available later this month.
On Naxos, yet another rerelease from the old Maxwell Davies, Collins Classics back catalogue, this time his ballet Caroline Mathilde with bonus works Chat Moss and Ojai Festival Overture. Also on the label is Chinese composer Gan-Ru’s Shanghai Reminiscences, which explores his childhood and the Chinese cultural revolution; and Jack Gallagher’s Symphony No. 2.
Adriana Hölszky: Wie ein gläsernes Meer, mit Feuer gemischt. Works for Organ. Wergo WER 67892.
There are some fine recent disks on the German label Wergo. If you are not familiar with their work I urge you to have a rummage around their website, especially as many of their recordings are available on Spotify.
Adriana Hölszky’s disk Wie in gläsernes Meer, mit Feuer gemischt, for example, is a meaty sonic spectacular. It’s astonishing the number of unusual sounds she coaxes out of the organ. As a non-specialist it is not always possible to be sure which extended technique she uses when, though one suspects half-open stops, unmixed mixtures, turning the blower on and off to detune and retune and certainly plenty of deliciously dense clusters.
In Und ich sah wie in gläsernes Meer mit Feuer gemisch, [And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire] and Efeu und Lichtfeld [Ivy and Field of Light] furthermore, she uses percussion ingeniously to colour of the organ line, feeling, as it were, like just another drawn stop. The latter work also features a solo violin. We are told that it and organ ‘appear to exist independently of one another’, but the effect is just as much febrile conversation, with sudden bursts of energy sparking between the two. In the four moment Und wieder Dunkel, the percussion takes on an independent role, lending a brooding intensity of its own.
The musical language everywhere is challenging and it will certainly not be immediately apparent what underlying forces give these works their coherence. That they all unfold with an impressive, near apocalyptic inevitability is, however, undeniable. And the delicious palette of sounds that form the surface means that boredom is an impossibility.
The recorded sound is appropriately ample yet intimate enough to catch the the solo violin with clarity. Performances are superb.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always relieved when the Christmas season comes to an end. The Christmas tree, such an attractive sight at the beginning of December, is, by now, dropping needles everywhere; the rich meals and endless chocolates are starting to pall; and, fun though it was, I’ve now had quite enough of the saccharine yuletide soundtrack. Bah humbug.
It’s now time to cast our clear-thinking, January eyes forward to see what 2015 will bring. Quite a bit as it turns out: Boulez’s 90th birthday celebrations, including a Total Immersion Day at the Barbican; Tansy Davies’s operatic debut Between Worlds in April; the New York Philharmonic’s CONTACT! series including new music from Italy, Nordic countries, Japan and Israel; and any number of festivals and other events.
Here’s then is my little preview of 2015. It is not, of course, comprehensive; I will update CT’s own concert diary month by month as the year progresses, so do swing by every now and again for updates.
For now, I wish you a very Happy New Year!
10th Scanner New work & Naama Zisser Drowned in C (world premières). London Sinfonietta. Kings Place Hall One, London.
17th Hear and Now: Hans Abrahamsen. String Quartet No.1, Double Concerto (UK Premiere). BBCSSO. City Halls, Glasgow. London Sinfonietta. Kings Place Hall One, London.
21st James Dillon Stabat Mater Dolorosa (London première). London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
26th–30th FOCUS! 2015: Nippon Gendai Ongaku, Japanese Music Since 1945. The Juilliard School, NYC.
28th Composer Portrait: Thierry Escaich. BBNOW. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff.
31st Total Immersion Percussion, with a selection of works by various living composers. Four events in total. Barbican, London.
9th CONTACT!: New Music from Israel. Musicians from the New York Philharmonic. Lincoln Centre, NYC.
12th Concert of vocal music by James MacMilan, including two UK premières. Barbican, London.
12th–14th Birtwistle Responses: Of sweet disorder and the carefully careless
(U.S. première). BSO. Boston Symphony Hall Boston MA.
14th–15th Lachenmann’s Tableau, with Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. Barbican, London.
25th Tokaido Road: A Journey after Hiroshige. London premiere of Nicola Lefanu's acclaimed opera. Milton Court Theatre.
25th Composer Portrait: B Tommy Andersson. BBNOW explore a selection of B Tommy Andersson’s works, as part of his role as Composer-in-Association. Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff.
27th Georg Friedrich Haas Open Spaces (UK premiere), Mica Levi New work (world premiere). London Sinfonietta. Purcell Room, London.
27th-1st March Peninsular Arts Contemporary Music Festival.
28th Manfred Trojahn Herbstmusik/Sinfonischer Satz (UK Premiere) and Vito Žuraj Hawk-eye (horn concerto) (UK Premiere). BBCSSO. City Halls, Glasgow.
7th CONTACT!: New Music from Nordic Countries. NYPhil. Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.
8th Unsuk Chin Alice in Wonderland. Multimedia staging by Netia Jones (UK Premiere). Barbican, London.
12th–14th Thomas Adès Totentanz (U.S. première). New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall.
20th Molly Joyce, world première and other works by Monk, Balter, Adams and Dennehy. Present Music. Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee.
21st Total Immersion: Boulez at 90. A number of events celebrating the work of the French composer. Barbican, London.
21st–29th Lucerne Festival at Easter
26th–28th John Adams Scheherazade.2 – Dramatic symphony for violin and orchestra (world première). Avery Fisher Hall, NYC.
28th Michael Gandolfi New work for organ and orchestra (world première). BSO. Boston Symphony Hall - Boston, MA.
Also in May (details tbc):
LONDON EAR festival of contemporary music. Currently showing the 2014 programme.
1st Composition: Wales - Culmination Concert. Composers worthy of wider exposure have the opportunity to hear their works performed by BBCNOW.
5th James MacMillan St Luke's Passion (London première). Barbican, London.
11th-25th Between Worlds. Operatic debut from composer Tansy Davies, who collaborates with director Deborah Warner and librettist Nick Drake on this world premiere. ENO, London.
14th Jake Heggie Camille Claudel: Into the Fire for string quartet (European première). Barbican, London.
17th Esa-Peka Salonen Nyx (UK première) with NY Philharmonic. Barbican, London.
17th David Matthews Symphony No.8 (World première): BBC Philharmonic. Bridgewater Hall, Manchester.
18th Music by five living composers. Musicians of the NY Philharmonic. Barbican, London.
22nd, 24th, 25th Georg Friedrich Haas String Quartet No 2
Atthis (UK premiere). Royal Opera House, London.
24th Christopher Rouse Prospero’s Rooms (UK premiere). BBCSO. Barbican, London.
24th Richard Ayres’ In the Alps. Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee. Present Music.
28th Ensemble Intercontemporain: Boulez at 90. Barbican, London.
8th–24th Norfolk and Norwich Festival.
11th CONTACT!: New Music from Italy. Musicians from the New York Philharmonic. SubCulture, NYC.
12th-23rd Vale of Glamorgan Festival.
15th–25th Bath International Music Festival.
16th–25th July Peter Pan Richard Ayres. Richard Ayres and Lavinia Greenlaw’s new opera Peter Pan receives its UK première in a new production by Keith Warner.
19th Seán Doherty New work (world première). Part of the Making Music’s Adopt a Composer programme. Barbican, London.
25th–30th Northern Chords Festival.
Also in may (details tbc)
Prague Spring International Music Festival. Currently showing the 2014 programme.
The English Music Festival 2015 programme should appear today.
St. Davids Cathedral Festival
York Spring Festival of New Music
5th CONTACT!: New Music from Japan. Musicians from the New York Philharmonic. Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, NYC.
6th Nico Muhly Sentences (world première). Nico Muhly’s new exploration of the life and ideas of Alan Turing. Barbican, London.
12th–27th Harrison Birtwistle The Corridor & The Cure (world première). Music theatre double bill. London Sinfonietta. Various Venues.
12th-28th Aldeburgh Festival.
12th–28th Gregynog Festival (in France)
19th-24th St Magnus International Festival. Orkney Islands, Scotland. Programme not yet available.
Other June festivals (dates tbc):
Zeit für Neue Musik
Munich Opera Festival Nationaltheater and other venues in Munich.
Other June festivals (dates tbc):
3rd-–16th Soundscape. Maccagno, Italian Alps.
5th Jonathan Dove The Monster in the Maze: a new opera for children (UK premiere). LSO, Simon Rattle. Barbican, London.
10th–26th Buxton Festival. A marriage of opera, books and music, including some by contemporary composers.
17th-12th/9th BBC Proms. Programme not currently available, but there will be guaranteed premières aplenty. 2015 season accounted on 23rd April. Royal Albert Hall, London.
18th–30th/8th Salzburg Festival
Other July festivals (dates tbc):
Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival. Various venues, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.
Tête à Tête Opera Festival. Described as ‘our most imaginative opera laboratory’, the festival focuses entirely on new music.
‘Aix en Provence Festival. Some information available here. As yet, no contemporary music has been announced, but this might change.
3rd–15th High Score Festival. Contemporary music festival and classes. Pavia, Italy.
7th–31st Edinburgh International Festival. Programme not yet available, but there is usually a good selection of new music.
27th–1st/9th Presteigne Festival. Artistic innovation, musical discovery and, of course, new works in the Welsh Marches. Presteigne, Powys.
10th–19th Oslo Contemporary Music Festival.
4th–9th/10th Beethovenfest, Bonn.
Also in September (date tbc):
Warsaw International Festival of Contemporary Music. Still showing 2014 programme. Warsaw, Poland.
Dates not yet available:
Festival Internacional de Música Contemporánea de Tres Cantos. Contemporary music festival in Madrid, Spain.
Sound. North East Scotland’s Festival of New Music. Various venues.
Wien Modern. Festival that focuses on contemporary music. Still showing 2014 programme. Vienna, Austria.
Dates not yet available:
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
Lucerne Festival at the Piano.
A morality tale with apologies to Mahler and Charles Dickens. Merry Christmas to all CT members!
Mahler was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by his agent, the conductor, his understudy and the chief mourner. Scrooge would have signed it too had he been there, for Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.
Old Mahler, just as Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart and Bach before him, was as dead as a door-nail. The last in a noble line.
Oh! But he was a choosy man as a listener, Scrooge: melody, tonality, species counterpoint and classical forms! Hard and sharp as flint, with a distain for anything that defied the old norms. The excitement of discovery had little influence on him. No melody without tonic, no rhythm without pulse, no harmony without concord. The bitter wind of change blew and he resisted with scornful word and condescending look. But what did Scrooge care? He knew what he liked.
Once upon a time – of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve – old Scrooge sat busy in his house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them.
‘A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!’ cried a cheerful voice from the front door. It was Scrooge’s nephew, who, on being let in, presented his uncle with a small wrapped package.
‘I have a present for you. Open it!’
Reluctantly, Scrooge took the packet and unwrapped it.
‘Bah!’ said Scrooge, ‘Humbug!’ he said.
‘Stravinsky a humbug, uncle!’ said Scrooge’s nephew. ‘You don’t mean that, I am sure?’
‘I do,’ said Scrooge. “‘Stravinsky! All noise I tell you!’
‘Come,’ returned the nephew gaily. ‘I promise you, it is not even difficult Stravinsky: these works were written before the death of your beloved Mahler.’
Scrooge having no better answer ready on the spur of the moment, said, ‘Bah!’ again; and followed it up with ‘Humbug.’
‘Don’t be cross, uncle!’ said the nephew.
‘What else can I be,’ returned the uncle, ‘when I live in such a world of fools as this? Merry Christmas! Stravinsky! You invite me to your concerts of modern Music and you insult me with this present! Every idiot who goes listening to this nonsense should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”
‘Uncle!’ pleaded the nephew.
‘Nephew!’ returned the uncle sternly, ‘keep to your own Music, and let me keep to mine.’
‘I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I’ll keep my Christmas humour to the last. So A Merry Christmas, uncle!’
‘Good afternoon!’ said Scrooge.
‘And A Happy New Year!’
‘Good afternoon!’ said Scrooge.
His nephew left the room without an angry word, notwithstanding.
Left in peace, he closed his door, and locked himself in; double-locked himself in, which was not his custom. Thus secured against surprise, he took off his tie; put on his dressing-gown and slippers, and his nightcap; and sat down before the fire to take his supper. As he threw his head back in the chair, his glance happened to rest upon a bell, a disused bell, that hung in the room, and communicated for some purpose now forgotten with a chamber in the highest story of the building. It was with great astonishment, and with a strange, inexplicable dread, that as he looked, he saw this bell begin to swing.The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.
‘It's humbug!’ said Scrooge. ‘I won't believe it.’
His colour changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, ‘I know him; Mahler’s Ghost!’ and fell again.
The same face: the very same. Mahler with his swept-back hair, severe woollen suit, bow-tie and wire-frame glasses. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.
‘How now.’ said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. ‘What do you want with me?’
‘Much. I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping your fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer. You will be haunted by Three Spirits.’
‘Without their visits,’ said the Ghost, ‘you cannot hope to shun the narrow Musical path you tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One. Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of Twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!’
THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS
The following night Scrooge lay in his bed when he remembered, on a sudden, that the Ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one. He resolved to lie awake until the hour was passed; and, considering that he could no more go to sleep than go to Heaven, this was, perhaps, the wisest resolution in his power.
The quarter was so long, that he was more than once convinced he must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock. At length it broke upon his listening ear.
‘A quarter past,’ said Scrooge, counting.
‘Half-past!’ said Scrooge.
‘A quarter to it,’ said Scrooge.
‘The hour itself,’ said Scrooge triumphantly, ‘and nothing else!’
He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy One. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and the curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor.
It was a strange portly figure with a white wig. It wore a long navy coat, white knee breeches and socks and buckled black shoes. In one of its delicate jabot and lace cuffed hands it held a piece of brown parchment.
‘Are you the Spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?’ asked Scrooge.
The voice was soft and gentle. Singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
‘Who, and what are you?’ Scrooge demanded.
‘I am the Ghost of Music Past.’
‘What do you want of me?’
‘Rise! and walk with me!’
It would have been in vain for Scrooge to plead that the weather and the hour were not adapted to pedestrian purposes; that bed was warm, and the thermometer a long way below freezing; that he was clad but lightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap; and that he had a cold upon him at that time. The grasp, though gentle as a woman's hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the Spirit made towards the window, clasped his robe in supplication.
‘I am mortal,’ Scrooge remonstrated, ‘and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!’
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall and stood in the chancel of a large church. Scrooge's house had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The bulky walls of the building were broken by small arched windows, which let in so little light that it took Scrooge's eyes a moment to adjust. A choir of monks was rehearsing in the gloom.
‘Good Heavens!’ said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. ‘Who are these people?’
‘These are but shadows of people that have been,’ said the Ghost. 'They have no consciousness of us. Watch and listen'
The strange sounds filled the building. Scrooge was perplexed.
‘What is this Music? It is beautiful in its way,’ he said.
‘You sound uncertain,' said the Spirit.
‘I don’t know, it sounds…’ Scrooge struggled to find the right word.
‘It is organum.’ said the Spirit.
‘What is that?’ asked Scrooge, who had the feeling that a trick had been played upon him.
‘A type of Music common at this time. You only need to know that it is different.’
‘I cannot see how that concerns me,’ said Scrooge.
‘You stand here at the very source of all you love. It concerns you a great deal.’
Before Scrooge could reply the Spirit had taken his hand. He led him down the chancel steps before motioning him to turn back towards the high altar.
To Scrooge's astonishment the scene had changed: he now found himself in lavish courtly surroundings. There was a smaller group of singers and an informal audience of eminent personages in various positions of elegant repose. The men sported pointed beards and wide moustaches and wore close-fitting doublets, hose and breeches. Of the women, Scrooge’s eye was drawn to one more splendid than the rest. She sat apart with a pearl headdress, ruff, a finely embroidered blue doublet with a high neckline and matching skirts.
‘Who is that?’ asked Scrooge.
‘That is Margherita of Austria, bride of Philip III of Spain.’
‘And where are we?’
‘Mantua’ replied the Spirit.
Scrooge listened to the singers and quickly found himself engrossed. The beauty of the voices, the finely wrought counterpoint and, above all, the agonising and exquisite harmonies. Tears came to his eyes.
‘You are emotional,’ said the Spirit.
‘I cannot help it, this Music, it…’
Scrooge’s search for a superlative was interrupted by the sound of a chair scraping on the floor. One of the audience had sprung angrily to his feet and was walking noisily from the room.
‘Disgraceful!’ cried a scandalised Scrooge. ‘Who would interrupt such beautiful Music.’
‘A man who, perhaps, found these harmonies a little trying.’
‘Trying! I cannot believe it!’
‘Believe it you must. That man is Giovanni Maria Artusi. He will soon be writing a book called The Imperfections of Modern Music.’
Scrooge was incredulous. ‘Imperfections? I cannot imagine a Music more perfect’ He would have continued but his eye was caught by a member of the small choir, a man in his thirties, who looked as enraged as the man who had stormed out.
’Who is that?’
‘He is Claudio Monteverdi.’
‘Of course!’ cried Scrooge, ‘He is the composer. I am not surprised he is angry.’
‘The path of the modern composer is never easy…’
The Spirit looked pleased with himself. Scrooge was beginning to guess the game.
‘You show me these visions to what end?’
‘That tastes change,’ replied the Spirit ‘and Music progresses. You found the open harmonies of the organum dull compared to the Music you prefer. Imagine if those monks had been listening to this Monteverdi madrigal. How might they have reacted when even Monteverdi’s contemporaries found it shocking?’
Scrooge thought for a moment. ‘You make a good argument Spirit. I can see that what you say is true but how can I change the Music I like? Modern Music is so difficult, so complicated.’
'All will become clear'
Seeing that the ghost looked upon him with disdain, Scrooge became angry.
'Why do you mock me?' he exclaimed. 'Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
He was suddenly conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, then, of being in his own bedroom. He had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.
THE SECOND OF THE THREE SPIRITS
Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, Scrooge found his bed the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour of one; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at. At last, however, he began to think that the source and secret of this ghostly light might be in the adjoining room, from whence, on further tracing it, it seemed to shine. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.
The moment Scrooge's hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. He was looking at a schoolroom, more specifically a Music room. There was a piano and stereo system and several rough lines of chairs. On each was seated a fidgeting and excited child. As well as a large whiteboard, the walls were adorned with posters of composers: a plump and contented looking Bach, a dishevelled Beethoven, a hugely foreheaded Berlioz. There were also some other figures – Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Shostakovich – and also many others he had never heard of.
‘I am the Ghost of Music Present,’ said the Spirit.
Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit. He was not the dogged Scrooge he had been; and though the Spirit's eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge submissively, ‘conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.’
‘From these children shall ye learn!’
Another figure, a young man, was now in the room. He was putting a CD into the stereo system.
‘Remember’ he said ‘when you close your eyes to think of the Musical elements: tempo, texture, timbre, dynamics, duration, pitch and pulse. But, also, I want to know what you feel.’
Half-expecting some Mozart or Beethoven – something, he thought condescendingly, that would challenge these young minds – Scrooge was stupefied to hear a score of astonishing complexity and dissonance.
He recognised the opening words, Kyrie Eleison. But this was no cheerful Mozart Mass setting; it was a terrible and awesome wall of sound.
‘Where is the melody? Where is the harmony? I cannot make sense of this,’ opined Scrooge.
‘Your ears are dulled by the familiar. You must learn to listen anew.’
After a few minutes the teacher faded the Music out.
‘Who wants to tell me something about this piece. What about the dynamics?’ he asked.
Twenty hands shot up, twenty posteriors bounced on chairs.
Child 1: ‘Started quietly sir and got louder!’
‘As simple as that?’
Child 2: ‘No sir. It got quieter again at the end.’
‘And the texture?’
Child 3: ‘It started thin, there wasn’t much going on, but then there was more and more.’
‘Ok, good, so how would you describe the things going on? What about the duration of the notes?’
Child 4: ‘Lots of very fast short notes, all at the same time!’
Child 2 again (smart aleck): ‘No, there were some long notes every now and again’
‘What about the timbre of the notes? What instruments could you hear?’
Child 5: ‘Well, mostly the quick bits were with singing, but the long notes were played by instruments.’
‘And the pitch? Did anyone notice what happened at the end?’
Child 6: ‘It got higher’
Child 7: ‘Yes, but that stopped at the end leaving lower sounds underneath’
The teacher took out a pen and drew three shapes on the whiteboard: a rectangle, a wedge shape starting with the widest section and gradually tapering off to a point and a wedge that did the exact reverse.’
‘If you had to choose one of these shapes to describe the Music, which would it be? Who votes for the first?’
One hand, quickly withdrawn. Disgusted looks from the others.
Not a single hand.
Every hand shot up.
Child 2 (again!): ‘But maybe you should also put a little shape at the end to show it getting quiet.’
‘Quite right too!’ said the young man, well content. ‘And what did you think of the Music? Did you like it?’
Chorus of children: ‘Yes! It was spooky! Scary! Sounded a bit spacey! To infinity and beyond!’
The Ghost turned to Scrooge. ’Do you still think modern Music is too complicated to understand?’ he asked.
Scrooge felt hot with embarrassment. ‘No,’ he answered simply.
‘You listen to Music expecting certain things, especially you expect tonal harmony and melody. As soon as these things are absent you switch off your ears and close your mind. Children have no such preconceptions. They listen without prejudice and so hear without limit.’
‘How then can I free my mind?’
‘I have one more thing to show you’
The Ghost took Scrooge’s hand and suddenly found himself high in the air and moving with great speed. It was a great surprise to Scrooge, while listening to the moaning of the wind, and thinking what a solemn thing it was to move on through the lonely darkness over an unknown abyss, whose depths were secrets as profound as Death: it was a great surprise to Scrooge, while thus engaged, to hear a hearty laugh. It was a much greater surprise to Scrooge to recognise it as his own nephew's and to find himself in a bright, gleaming room, with the Spirit standing smiling by his side, and looking at that same nephew with approving affability.
‘Ha, ha!’ laughed Scrooge's nephew. ‘Ha, ha, ha!’
‘He said that modern Music was a humbug, as I live!’ cried Scrooge's nephew. ‘He believed it too!’
‘More shame for him, Fred!’ said Scrooge's niece, indignantly.
‘He's a comical old fellow,’ said Scrooge's nephew, ‘that's the truth: and not so pleasant as he might be. However, his offences carry their own punishment, and I have nothing to say against him.’
‘I have no patience with him,’ observed Scrooge's niece.
‘Oh, I have!’ said Scrooge's nephew. ‘I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always. He takes it into his head to dislike anything written after Mahler. What's the consequence? He misses a whole world of Music.’
‘But perhaps’, said one of his friends, ‘your old Scrooge is right. Why shouldn’t he listen to what he likes?’
‘My good man, you entirely miss the point. He is like a child who refuses new foods. I do not object to him listening to what he likes, but I object most strongly to him not trying new things.’
‘But your analogy does not work,’ his friend protested, ‘one can avoid the taste of new food by the simple act of refusing to put it in one’s mouth. That is childish indeed. Music is everywhere. He cannot fail to have heard some New Music so, even though he avoids it, his opinion is based on real data.’
‘Ah, but how many of us talk about “the acquired taste” when we talk about those marvellous flavours that we eschew as children. We have to work to acquire them. Once cultivated, life becomes rich indeed.’
‘Life without the great classical composers before Mahler is not rich enough?’
‘Simply not as rich as it could be. How can it be when you consider the enormous variety of Music written since that time? Actually, given that there is such a variety, he has even less excuse not to listen to it’
‘What can you mean?’
‘Some of our most eminent living composers do not pose a stylistic challenge in the way that he perceives it. Our first reaction when listening to Glass, Adams or Reich is not to bemoan the astringency of the harmonies and the impossible intricacies of the serial method. I am saying that, even given his current tastes, there are marvellous pieces he could listen to today without any great effort. He simply needs to be more inquisitive.’
‘But that is still an admission that he will never get to grips with more challenging fare’
‘What I refer to is a gradual opening of the mind. Of course if one begins with Boulez or Birtwistle, there is a possibility that a listener will perceive all the Music of our time as being difficult and stop listening. That is why I tried to give him some early Stravinsky today. The same composer who wrote the Requiem Canticles at the end of his life also wrote Fireworks and Firebird at the beginning. This is a microcosm of Music of our time; there is a multiplicity of styles. If you find some of it bewildering that is not an excuse not to listen, but to find something else, and perhaps try that which bewildered you again later.’
‘Anyway,' said Scrooge's nephew, becoming cheerful again, 'at least his oddities provide with us with good conversation, so it would be ungrateful not to drink his health. Here is a glass of mulled wine ready to our hand at the moment; and I say, “Uncle Scrooge!”’
‘Uncle Scrooge!’ they cried.
‘A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to the old man, whatever he is.’ said Scrooge's nephew. ‘He wouldn't take his present from me, but may he have it, nevertheless. Uncle Scrooge!’
Scrooge was so gay and light of heart, to hear his health so heartily drunk. Neither had the lesson been wasted upon him:
‘I do believe that my nephew is right. Perhaps there is something to be gained by being a little more adventurous in my listening habits. I will look into it when I have a moment.’
‘You feel no urgency?’
‘Is there any?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Very much so.’
The whole scene passed off in the breath of the last word spoken by the Spirit; and he and Scrooge were again upon their travels. It had been a long night, if it were only a night; but Scrooge had his doubts of this, because the Christmas Holidays appeared to be condensed into the space of time they passed together. It was strange, too, that while Scrooge remained unaltered in his outward form, the Ghost grew older, clearly older. Scrooge had observed this change, but never spoke of it, until, as they stood together in an open place, he noticed that its hair was grey.
‘Are spirits’ lives so short?’ asked Scrooge.
‘My life upon this globe, is very brief,’ replied the Ghost. ‘It ends tonight.’
‘Tonight!’ cried Scrooge.
‘Tonight at midnight. Hark! It is already time.'
The chimes were ringing twelve.
Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Mahler, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.
THE LAST OF THE SPIRITS
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.
‘I am in the presence of Music Yet To Come?’ said Scrooge.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.
‘You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,’ Scrooge pursued. ‘Is that so, Spirit?’
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the Spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.
Although well used to ghostly company by this time, Scrooge feared the silent shape so much that his legs trembled beneath him, and he found that he could hardly stand when he prepared to follow it.
‘Ghost of the Future!’ he exclaimed, ‘I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear your company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?’
It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.
The Phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Scrooge followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.
A churchyard. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite.
The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.
‘Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,’ said Scrooge, ‘answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?’
Still the Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
‘Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. ‘But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!’
The Spirit was immovable as ever.
Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave the Spirit’s own name:
Music Yet to Come
‘It cannot be!’ he cried, upon his knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to the Phantom himself, and back again.
‘No, Spirit! Oh no, no!’
The finger still was there.
‘Spirit!’ he cried, tight clutching at its robe, ‘hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if it is beyond all hope?’
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
‘Good Spirit,’ he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: ‘I understand. Finally, I understand. I have always loved and honoured Music. I have fawned and doted upon composers, but never once have I stopped to listen to the Music of my time. I never realised that there was such variety and richness, that I already possess the faculties for comprehending it, if only I tried to be a little more adventurous.’
‘I will not let Music die. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!’
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
THE END OF IT
Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
‘I will not let Music die!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh, Gustav Mahler! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Gustav, on my knees!’
He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the Spirit, and his face was wet with tears.
Scrooge was better than his word. He listened. Oh how he listened! Berg, Boulez, Benjamin; Messiaen, Murail, MacMillan; Stravinsky, Simpson, Saunders. The modern classics and the classics in the making. He bought tickets to concerts and evangelised. The occasional piece he did not like he did not cast aside, granting instead that, perhaps, he had not fully understood it or that a second or third listening might be required. He did not forget the old composers. In fact, his knowledge of the repertoire helped him better understand the Music of his own time.
Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew his Music, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, God bless Us, Every One!
Most record labels are taking a break this month, new releases being few and far between. Not so on Naxos, of course. If you haven’t been able to get tickets for Joby Talbot’s Alice in Wonderland (now sold out), you might consider the deluxe DVD recording with the Royal Ballet. Though I think this has been available elsewhere for a while, it popping up on Naxos this month feels timely. It is also an accessible score that would make a good Christmas present for those not necessarily attracted to new music.
There is a new Alun Hoddinott disk containing a cross-section of his song cycles and folk songs written between 1975 to 2006 performed by Claire Booth (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Jeremy Huw Williams (bass) and Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano). The Maxwell Davies rereleases continue with The Beltane Fire, The Turn of the Tide, Sunday Morning, Threnody on a Plainsong for Michael Vyner and Sir Charles his Pavan with the BBC Philharmonic conducted by the composer. Another senior British composer, John McCabe, is represented by an album exploring his triple life as conductor, pianist and conductor. It contains his Symphony No. 1, Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt, Two Piano Studies and Tuning. Chris Paul Harman’s new disk uses a variety of keyboard and percussion instruments as the medium for exploring works by J.S. Bach and Robert Schumann. Barcelona-born Leonardo Balada’s new album, finally, contains his Symphony No. 6 Symphony of Sorrows, Concerto for 3 Cellos and Orchestra and Steel Symphony.
I remember the death of Karajan in 1989 as something that I read about in newspapers without really understanding the hysteria that had surrounded him in life. He already seemed a figure from another age, far removed from my own burgeoning musical tastes, which centred round period instrument recordings and contemporary music. I certainly remember the aversion I felt when seeing CD covers that featured his name in grander lettering than the composers I revered. For a while Karajan even became a kind of shorthand for the opposite of the kind of recording I favoured: ‘Are you buying a recording of Bach’s Cello Suites?’,’Yes [sarcastically], I was thinking of getting Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic.’
I have since bought a few Karajan recordings: Mahler, Bruckner and even some Schoenberg, but my youthful prejudices about the conductor never completely vanished. BBC4’s new documentary, Karajan’s Magic and Myth went some way towards dispelling them. The famous megalomania was as disagreeable as ever. His insistence that the camera remain on him in his films, his refusal to acknowledge applause in smaller venues when on tour with the Philharmonia, his childish attitude that, when ill, the Berliners should not play for a different conductor. His membership of the Nazi party during the war was also distasteful, though perhaps less so than his refusal to come to terms with it afterwards, even hinting that he too had been the target of persecution.
Artistry should always be judged separately from biography, however. In this sphere the film was justifiably more sympathetic. His rehearsing of the European Community Youth Orchestra in the opening of the second movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, in particular, was brilliant. It was astonishing how many valid musical points he extracted from these few phrases, most revealingly around the unexpected change of chord that occurs at the end of the third bar. It was also interesting to hear some of his recordings exhibit the lightness and virtuosity that marked him as rather closer to the period instrument aesthetic than I had otherwise thought. Not surprising, perhaps, given that Karajan himself was much influenced by the sprightly conducting of Toscanini. The film also showed that some of the tricks that Karajan played on his performers were made for sound musical reasons. On one occasion, when Jessye Norman had meticulously warmed up for her practice session of the Liebestod from Tristan, Karajan made her sit in silence at the front of the orchestra, listening to them rehearse. As she acknowledged herself, and was evident in the footage that followed, this paid dividends when she was eventually called upon to sing; having absorbed the sound of the orchestra she was better able to find her place within the texture.
There were, inevitably, some gaps in an otherwise excellent film. Of course, I would have liked some more information about Karajan’s dealings with contemporary music. Whilst he could hardly be called a great supporter he did conduct his fair share. He also had interesting things to say on the subject. He was once asked if Boulez and Webern would eventually be understood by concertgoers. His open-minded (though rather simplistic) response was: 'I am quite certain that the next generation will have no problem in understanding most of the music of today. Think of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Twenty years ago it was considered inaccessible; today it is a classic. Think of the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. When we perform it today, it sounds like a concerto grosso of Handel. With the decline of melodic inspiration in music, the serial techniques of today are a necessary self-imposed discipline for the composer…' It would have been nice to have known more about this aspect of Karajan’s musicianship.
Neither did the film completely get to the bottom of why Karajan was the way he was. Other conductors have proved that greatness is not synonymous with self-obsession and a tyrannical approach. So it was not simply a means to a noble musical end. It is probably a question that will never be answered since there is such a lack of first-hand witnesses – Karajan had few friends and certainly none within the Berlin Philharmonic. One player remarked that, during his thirty year tenure, he only had one conversation with him. One senses that this was all part of Karajan’s master plan. In order to reinforce his status he chose to distance himself from others. This, no doubt, feeds the myth – the paucity of facts fuelling speculation – but it also leaves him a rather sad and lonely figure.
BBC4’s Karajan's Magic and Myth is available on BBC iPlayer until Friday 12th December.
Some time ago I wrote about the problem of where a composer should live. Large Western cities probably make most sense. London, Paris, Berlin, New York and the like have a thriving cultural life that is appealing to artists. They are also, however, impossibly expensive to live in. For me, furthermore, I find city life unattractive: the traffic, the crowds, the often depressing urban architecture. I also like to be a bit more adventurous in my travel habits.
For almost five months I have been living in Antigua, Guatemala, something I rather hope you haven’t noticed if you have been reading my blog posts during this time. Before Guatemala I went to Mexico for a couple of weeks to discuss a possible writing project with a colleague. After this I headed south. I initially planned to spend around two months in Guatemala, returning at the beginning of September. It didn’t work out like that and, instead, I had to drag myself away at the end of November.
Until very recently I would never have believed I could visit such a place for so long and, here’s the thing, still support myself. It dawned upon me one day that, since most of my musical work takes place over the internet, I could do it from any point in the globe so long as I had an internet connection. Becoming a ‘digital nomad’ is a fairly common lifestyle choice these days. Less so, however, for musicians. And musician or not, traveling to a developing country was something of a risk – I had no idea what the infrastructure would be like and feared I might end up having to get straight back on the plane to search for a decent internet connection.
Things didn’t bode well when I arrived. Apart from being violently ill and having to chase a large cockroach around my bedroom the first night, the place where I was supposed to be staying for the first month had no internet connection at all. I soon learned that the internet was down in the whole of Antigua. This would cause apoplexy in most Western towns. In Guatemala it resulted in shrugged shoulders and the advice that I should be patient.
It did, in fact, return after several days, but the quality was horrible. This was, however, more to do with a bad set-up where I was staying rather than the standard of telecommunications as a whole. I was eventually saved by the extraordinary, better than first world, quality of Guatemala’s 3G phone network. Phone tethering is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I was able to use my unlocked phone with a local sim card and, at a price that was bearable if not exactly cheap, had a decent internet connection. It even passed the Netflix streaming video test. Eventually I shifted to a USB dongle sold by one of the local carriers, which was even better since it also allowed me to access the 4G network.
My complete system is shown in the photo that heads this article. It consists of a Macbook Pro, small midi keyboard, iPad (essentially used as a replacement for printing stuff out), my ageing iPhone 4, an external hard drive and, also visible, the 3/4G dongle. With this mobile office I was able, quite easily, to write these blogs, conduct interviews, write musical arrangements and complete a commission for a Christmas carol. It was also liberating being free from a wired internet connection; I could take my laptop anywhere, even to the middle of a field, and continue to work. In fact, as I write this I am on a bus from Querétaro in Mexico to the airport, having rounded off my time in Guatemala with another visit to my friends here.
There are pro and cons to this kind of lifestyle if you’ve ever considered it, especially if you are a composer:
Nothing inspires like travelling; you expose yourself to so many new experiences. I’ve collected a fair few ideas for pieces, even if the Christmas carol I wrote could hardly be called Guatemalan.
If you earn money over the internet in pounds, dollars or euros, when you convert that into a currency like the Guatemalan quetzal, you are going to have a lot more spending power. I eventually rented a house for four months. It was probably the most expensive part of the country and cost me less than £300 per month. That included a cleaner.
You certainly appreciate how little you need. I’ve got a garage full of possessions at home. I didn’t miss a single thing. With an iPad, Netflix, BBC iPlayer and a VPN account you can feel at home anywhere. Not that that’s entirely the point. You need to mix with the natives too.
The sheer freedom that you feel. There is something wildly exotic about working in an unusual location, even if that means on a bus or at an airport.
There’s no doubt it is isolating. Guatemala has no contemporary music scene that I could discern (unlike Mexico, for example). I couldn’t see it as a permanent way of living. Sooner or later you need to come back to renew your contacts. And, with the best will in the world, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage compared to composers who are always in the right place at the right time.
Of course not everyone can just up-sticks. If you have a family or other commitments things are rather more complicated.
If you are squeamish about things going wrong – medically, travel-wise or in terms of being a target for criminals – then maybe it’s not for you. Having said that, I find that disasters lead to the most interesting experiences. I once had my camper van broken into on a three-month tour of Spain. My laptop was stolen and there was quite a bit of damage to the vehicle. This, however, set off a chain of events that led to me making friends with a lovely family in the Basque country, one of the richest and rewarding cultural experiences I’ve had.
If you’re contemplating trying to remain as a composer and move around very frequently, e.g. as a backpacker, I think this would be very difficult. My attitude is to go somewhere interesting but stay there for a long time. ‘Slow travel’ as they say. That way you can live normally, exploring your surroundings at a leisurely pace.
Despite my reservations, composing and long-term travel can work. If you have ever thought of doing the same and have the means, the opportunity and, in my case, a very understanding boss then you should forget your fear and go for it. It has been one of the most extraordinarily rewarding periods of my life. After a suitable pause I shall be heading out again. I haven't even returned and I am dreaming of exotic new destinations.
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Concert Listings Today & Tomorrow: