Showing posts with label CBSO. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CBSO. Show all posts

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Benjamin Britten: "My Fairy-Tale Uncle"

My Yorkshire sister-in-law has drawn my attention to this wonderful memoir from a member of the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, which is performing the Britten War Requiem tonight at Sheffield City Hall with the CBSO under Michael Seal.

Steve Terry is supporting the performance through the Friends of Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus Scheme "in celebration of my late wife and of Benjamin Britten's genius". He knew Britten well as a youngster and has written about their friendship on the website. He remembers BB as "a fairy-tale uncle, living in a beautiful house full of treasures (Constable paintings, Rodin and Henry Moore sculptures, a gorgeous parrot) and creating the most remarkable music, which I found both accessible and intellectually and emotionally challenging."  Read it all here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Felix is back...

I'm preoccupied with Felix Mendelssohn at the moment. Right now, am between the first two of three pre-concert talks that I'm giving for the CBSO's Mendelssohn symphonies series, which is being conducted by Ed Gardner, and the glories of the music seem endless - galvanising, thrilling, visceral, quicksilver. There's nobody like Felix. Yet I'm still gnashing teeth with frustration over the way that those old slanders keep getting repeated and repeated and repeated, often by people who ought to know better.

The view of Felix as glib and shallow needs to be scotched once and for all. It comes from Wagner, who was finding reasons to damn the Jewish-born composer with rootless-Cosmopolitan syndrome. Poor old Felix was excoriated on the one hand by certain Jewish lobbies for having abandoned his faith - like he had much choice, as his parents converted and had him baptised when he was about six years old; and condemned on the other hand by anti-Semitic musicologists for the sake of it.

Glib, nothing. He was a perfectionist; he took years to polish up some of his smoothest-sounding works, among them the 'Italian Symphony' and the Violin Concerto. Even the Octet, that utterly perfect masterpiece, didn't emerge that was first go when Felix was 16, as is often thought. Yes, he was lucky, privileged, well-educated, deeply cultured; yes, he was a favourite of Queen Victoria; no, he was not spoiled, nor was he immune to suffering, as the Jenny Lind story has proved.

In my talk the other day, on Saturday afternoon, I suggested that Mendelssohn is, as Peter Maxwell Davies has called him, "the Prophet of Light": the ultimate enlightened musician, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn - philosopher father of the Jewish Enlightenment - in every way, a man and musician who reconciled apparently conflicting ideas as if they barely existed. Thus he's the shining beacon that proves to us that such a thing is possible.

Come along to Birmingham Town Hall on Thursday at 1pm for the next episode, in which I'll be looking at Mendelssohn and Victorian Britain - from the very stage on which he conducted the world premiere of Elijah. Ed and the orchestra will perform a wonderful programme including the 'Scottish' Symphony and the Piano Concerto No.2, with Martin Helmchen - another work written specially for premiere in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, have a listen to the Ebene Quartet's marvellous recording of the Mendelssohn siblings, Felix and Fanny. Anyone who needs reminding that Mendelssohn was as prone to crises of the soul as anybody who ever lived simply needs to hear the F minor Quartet. End of story.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beethoven: Strength, Inspiration, Revolution!


There've been a few enquiries about my pre-concert talk for the CBSO & Andris Nelsons's Beethoven cycle in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 20 and 21 March. Here's the complete text, plus a recording of the movement I took apart via a surprise analogy that worked even better than I'd expected when I started preparing it...


BEETHOVEN, MUSIC AND REVOLUTION


Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and a very warm welcome to Symphony Hall for the continuation of Andris Nelsons and the CBSO’s Beethoven cycle. 

We’ve got to symphonies numbers 6 and 7 today and it’s a very great pleasure for me to be here to introduce them, as they happen to be my personal favourites of the nine. The sixth is, of course, the ‘Pastoral’ symphony and the seventh was once described by Wagner as ‘the apotheosis of the dance’ – though the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham had to put his own slant on that. He said, “well, what can you do with it, it’s like a load of yaks jumping about.” 

As Elvis Costello once said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It’s essentially intangible - but what I’d like to do today is to try to burrow into some of those intangible connections to consider how Beethoven can seem to convey to us the deepest associations between the processes of music and the processes of life and of living. And this might help to show why we think of him as a revolutionary, producing music that inspires idealism the way few others could dream of. 

Daniel Barenboim often says that music is like God because you can’t describe it – you can only describe the effect that it has. There’s no music more associated with Barenboim than Beethoven. Last year you might have caught the series he performed at the Proms with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of the complete Beethoven symphonies. At the end of the Ninth Symphony he zipped off to the Olympic Stadium and took part in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games – he was one of eight great humanitarians who carried in the Olympic flag together (pictured). They were dressed all in white, and shortly afterwards I interviewed him and he said he’d felt like a carnation. Barenboim has written and spoken extensively on the links between musical expression and life itself, and of music’s role in society as an art that can encapsulate the deepest and most universal of human processes. His book Everything is Connected is all about this. 

Barenboim says that “Beethoven’s music is universal – it speaks to all people”. The question is, why? How can it be that pieces written for a western classical orchestra some two hundred years ago can communicate so vividly with such a range of people today? And this music really does. 

A few years ago I went to the West Bank to report on some music education projects. Together with some musician friends, I had lunch in Hebron [pictured right - a snap of Hebron from the trip] with an amazing Palestinian lady named Sharifa, who showed us around the historic mosque where the tomb of the Patriarchs is located. Sharifa is an absolute indomitable battle-axe. She has to struggle daily with many very difficult situations. But she has extraordinary spirit and an irrepressible sparkle. Her English was good, but not perfect, and at one point we were trying to explain to her the word “inspiration”. And when she understood, she straight away asked the violinist who was with us to play some Beethoven. She loves Beethoven: she says he gives her strength. She was born and raised far from the music of the western classical tradition in a terribly troubled spot of the Middle East – but to her, Beethoven was the absolute definition of the word ‘inspiration’.

We hear frequently that Beethoven is “revolutionary”. But I wonder why he strikes us that way. His inner strength, of course, is unmistakeable. We know that in 1802 he went through a tremendous personal crisis while he was living in Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna. He had to face the fact that he was losing his hearing, and for a man who lives body, heart and soul for music, this was the worst thing that life could do to him. In his most famous document, the Heiligenstadt Testament – part will, part explanation, that he wrote for his two brothers – he said: “Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-nigh caused me to put an end to my life. Art! art alone deterred me. Ah! how could I possibly leave the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce?”. 

But Beethoven’s essential strength, the revolutionary quality, if you like, is not really biographical, at least not solely. Yes, he had huge personal battles to overcome and much tragedy in his life. His ideals are certainly reflected in his works, in some more directly than others. His only opera, Fidelio, for instance, is about a devoted wife who disguises herself as a man to infiltrate a political prison and save her husband from its dungeon. But Beethoven doesn’t ever seem to have been involved with politics beyond his intellectual interest. And of course his deafness, which set in when he was only about 28, would probably have prevented him getting involved even if he had wished to. He had great social and political ideals, though, and he certainly felt the injustices of the world: he was a cantankerous, troubled individual, yet one who, under that facade, felt an enormous compassion towards humanity. 

I heard a theory recently – from the great pianist Murray Perahia – that the real meaning of the so-called ‘Moonlight’ sonata may be something beyond our usual assumption that the publisher added the title for effect. Instead, it’s possible that this heading refers to the so-called ‘children of moonlight’, a term that described the spirits of the unfortunate, the outcasts, people who were denied the sunlight of the Enlightenment – hence the polarity of sun and moon. These spirits would sing of their suffering to the world through the medium of the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind. Apparently there is good circumstantial evidence to support the theory and it is much in tune with Beethoven’s spirit, to say nothing of the concept fitting the music to perfection. 

So perhaps there Beethoven could consciously have matched image to musical content. But what about the subconsciously revolutionary qualities in the music of his symphonies? And why can they seem revolutionary even to us today? In Beethoven’s time, this music would have sounded not just new, but shockingly new. The overt sense of conflict, the struggle between primal, motivic themes vying for supremacy, sparks flying through the extremities of his contrasts, all that would have sounded incredibly radical around the turn of the 18th into the 19th century. Beethoven was not remotely easy listening for those accustomed to graceful minuets in the background to accompany their dinner. And especially not just after the French Revolution.

But now? We’ve had Mahler, we’ve had Schoenberg, we’ve had Stravinsky, we’ve had, for goodness sake, Stockhausen and Boulez and John Cage. Why does Beethoven still inspire feelings of idealism, and even of political idealism, to ears and minds that have been exposed to so much else?

There are several levels to this. For a start, tonight’s two symphonies are totally different from one another; each is unique. But then, so is every other Beethoven symphony. And so is every single one of his 32 piano sonatas and each of his string quartets. And so on. Beethoven doesn’t repeat himself – the structures of no two works are exactly the same, and each one has not only an individual form but an individual soundworld, an atmosphere that is entirely its own.  

For instance, No.6 is the only Beethoven symphony in five movements and the only one in which three of the movements run through without a break. As for the individual soundworld, the spread-out, lyrical, tranquil melodies of the Sixth Symphony could scarcely be further away from the elemental punch and drive of the Seventh. This sense of constant reinvention, the need to push the boundaries further and further, is just one reason to consider Beethoven not only an innovator but, beyond that, a revolutionary. (And luckily we don't need Fantasia's Pastoral Symphony animation, pictured right, to push its own boundaries any further in this case...)

Now, there wasn’t so much that was new about the idea of a Pastoral Symphony by 1808. Or so you might think. Yet the way Beethoven approaches the idea is entirely new. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons is probably the work’s most famous forerunner. Vivaldi gave us an extremely pictorial set of concertos with direct sonic depictions of birds twittering in spring, the rain driving down in the summer storm, the skaters weaving around on the ice in winter. Then there was Haydn, with his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons; yet he largely serves his texts: the musical pictures are developed to match the images that the singers evoke.

Beethoven’s difference is that although the symphony may sound pictorial, that isn’t the point of it. Beethoven wanted to evoke not images, but the feelings associated with them.  He provided a brief guide for the programme at the world premiere, with the words: “Pastoral Symphony, more an expression of feeling than painting.” This puts him in a musically pioneering strand with the world of romanticism, where feeling was at the forefront. Yet it’s almost as if he looks forward by about a hundred years towards the symbolist movement, in which emotion and image are completely fused and nothing can be taken at face value. 

I think this was true, in a different way, for Beethoven. For instance, he used to take long walks on which he’d jot down themes he thought of, some inspired by nature - and in 1803, scribbling a melody suggested by the sight of a river, he wrote "The greater the river, the more grave the tone." Those words could suggest that he’s not thinking of what he sees, but of what more that image suggests to him in terms of association, and metaphor, and his emotional response to that.

But there are processes inside the fabric of the music itself that while entirely abstract can still produce some startling results when you look at them in detail. To me, the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony represents a special summit of achievement. I’d like to draw on Barenboim’s idea that the processes of life and music are connected to show you why I think this music strikes us as revolutionary, at that deep, abstract level. As Barenboim says, we can’t describe music itself; we can only describe the effect that it has, and what I’d like to describe is the effect on us of Beethoven’s music’s inner processes and how they can well be said to mirror the processes of human thought, interaction and society.

So I’m going to talk us through the second movement of Beethoven Seven with a few images in mind suggested by a story that obviously has nothing to do with its creation - but that mirrors something about the way its extraordinary structure operates and the impression it makes on us. 

On 1 December 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks was on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The town buses practised racial segregation. The driver told Rosa Parks to give up her seat to a white passenger. Rosa Parks refused. This one simple gesture against an enormous human injustice snowballed and eventually led to her becoming an icon of resistance to racial segregation and an important symbol of the American civil rights movement. 

 It started as one person making one small gesture. But it sprang out of a situation of bleak injustice, and one basic, fundamental thought. A situation as bleak as Beethoven’s first chord and a thought about human rights – segregation is wrong - that is as primal as the rhythm Beethoven sets up for his main theme.


The very first chord progression when those low strings come in is tonic to dominant, dominant to tonic. It’s the most fundamental harmonic progression you can get. The theme is scarcely a melody – it is a motif, a rhythm, strong and memorable and simple, and it is fundamental to the whole movement. 

Next, Beethoven begins to bring in the other sections of the orchestra one by one: voice after voice takes up the motif. The voices that have already sung it move on to a counter-melody, a more elaborate thought that illuminates the basic thought by the way it sounds together with it. Others are taking notice, recognising, adding their voices, joining in. The idea is growing in sophistication.

The movement – a good word for it - continues to grow. The thoughts become more elaborate, further voices are drawn in from different parts of the orchestra, or different parts of society if you like, and the rhythm begins to move on too: to the basic pulse we now add a doubling of pace in the lower instruments and gradually the woodwind sidle in almost without us noticing. And, of course, a big crescendo, a great groundswell of support, is beginning.

Now triplets come into the accompaniment so you get a two against three rhythmic effect that sets up a sense of differing forces in friction against one another, adding even more to the tension. The woodwind and brass are making their presences felt, so the central motif assumes the character of a fanfare, and the drums come in as well, but not always at the obvious moments – this adds to the unsettling effect of this growth. It is unpredictable, you don’t know where it’s going to go. Yet still, the entire orchestra is united in proclaiming a fundamental truth and its consequences, with everyone pulling together, which is the only way people can rise up and effect a revolution...

Ah – what happened? The movement ran out of steam. A decrescendo and it’s come to a halt. What now? An idealist is needed, with a new sense of direction. A Martin Luther King, perhaps, with a dream of a better world, powered by the underlying motif that segregation is wrong. Beethoven’s motif, the essential idea, is very much present now as a pulse, a heartbeat, underneath the lyrical melody that now begins. Other voices echo the song of the clarinet – and all the time there’s that tension in the background of that three against two rhythm.

It should be as simple as a major scale down and up. But it isn’t. There’s an interruption, an obstacle, and now what happens? Back comes the melody that started as counterpoint to the first idea; now there’s a new counterpoint against this one, and faster still than triplets, as if to say it’s going to be more complicated than we thought. And the fundamental theme is almost buried in the form of quiet pizzicato under the complication of what it’s spawned, as the strings keep on discussing and bickering, as strings tend to, while the woodwind try to preserve a trajectory of eloquence.

Of course someone has to come along and explore the small print. The legalities, the intellectualisation of the nature of that injustice. In music, that means we have to have a fugue. New motifs and counterpoints and off-beat rhythms complicate matters considerably...as we know, the lawyers always win.

...Now the original idea returns in a strong statement, together with its ideal-world dream and an argument – a tug-of-war between major and minor – that presents a continuing struggle, a perpetuated situation with nobody ready to give in. "We can change this!" "No you can’t!" In human terms it’s at this point that sometimes people get shot for their ideas.

So what’s happened to our basic idea? It seems to be pushed out into a corner – on upper woodwind, surreptitious, then passed down, whispered along from section to section, suppressed, through the lower woodwind until it reaches pizzicato. It’s going underground. The theme seems to have lost the battle. But that doesn’t change the truth of it. And in the last bars a resurgence is promised and left hanging in mid air: it will return. The human condition is the same, injustice remains injustice, and likewise, the final chord is the same as the one at the start.
 
This is the most extraordinary structure. Beethoven builds up a great climax near the beginning, then deconstructs it, suppresses it, yet proves that those ideas must ferment and rise again. 

You can take this idea or leave it - I offer it to you as one possible way of looking at the matter, and just one of many different ways. But to me, it seems to work. 

And this, I believe, is how Beethoven helps us all to change the world.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Three easy ways to get into opera

La Voix Humaine from washmedia on Vimeo.

1. Combine exploring opera with your passion for the piano. If you're heading to the Institut Francais's big three-day keyboardfest, It's All About Piano - starting today and running through Sunday - catch the screening of Poulenc's one-woman opera La Voix Humaine, filmed with the one and only Felicity Lott - with piano accompaniment, in which version it's been recorded for the first time, delivered by the brilliant Graham Johnson. Sneak preview above. The screening is tonight at 8pm - and if you turn up at 6pm you can hear Nick van Bloss play the Goldberg Variations and a four-hands programme from Lidija and Sanja Bizjak at 7pm.

2. Pop over to CultureKicks for my latest post, which is called "How to get into opera in under six minutes". You'll find a quick guide to Rigoletto, a film of its astonishing quartet 'Bella figlia d'amore' and a short explanation of why it shows to perfection what opera can do that just cannot be done nearly so well in any other art form... (Lovely editor there then said "What about Wagner?" to which the response can only be: "Well, what about Wagner...?" Watch that space.)

3. Listen to Andris Nelsons conducting. I've just been in Birmingham doing some pre-concert talks for the CBSO's Beethoven Cycle, which he, their music director, is doing for the first time. Honest to goodness, guv, this guy is amazing. Not sure I've seen anything so purely energetic and with so much warmth since...well, who? Jansons? Solti? The atmosphere in Symphony Hall - which was sold out - really had to be experienced. Nelsons, who hails from Latvia, cut his musical teeth as an orchestral trumpeter and started off, as so many great maestri do, in the opera house, and he's married to the soprano Kristine Opolais, who's currently wowing ROH crowds in Tosca.

He conducted his first Ring Cycle at the age of 26 and is now a favourite at Bayreuth. Hear his Beethoven and you can tell why. The structures are clear, but the emotion is allowed to blaze: there's enough rhythmic strength to build a castle, but enough flexibility to let in the sunshine. The characters and personalities that shine out of each of Beethoven's symphonies are as distinct as those of any opera. Perhaps, in this conductor's hands, music is inherently operatic?

It was an absolute privilege to have introduced this extraordinary concert. Great turnout for the talks, too, especially for yesterday's matinee, where a door-count estimate suggested we had nearly 500. Thanks for your warm reception, dear friends, and I hope you all enjoyed hearing about the slow movement of Beethoven 7 through the narrative of Rosa Parks and the American civil rights movement. 

Last but not least, it was a special treat to run into our old friend Norman Perryman, the musical "kinetic artist", whose beautiful paintings and portraits are part of the Symphony Hall visual brand. Here he is beside his magnificent picture suggested by Elgar, Gerontius, which hangs in the foyer at level 4. Glad to say he was in town to start work on a portrait of Nelsons.





Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reading and talking

I've been talking to some interesting people recently...

The unbelievable Edward Watson, who is dancing the lead role in Mayerling at Covent Garden next month. The crazed Crown Prince Rudolf is, weirdly enough, the only ballet prince he's played, other than Albrecht in Giselle, who's not really that princely. A dancer with his levels of drama, flexibility and power would probably be wasted chasing after a swan. Catch him first in the equally incredible The Metamorphosis.



A composer called Nimrod - who, as it turned out, lived next door to me in West Hampstead 20 years ago, except that we never met. The Philharmonia played a work of Nimrod Borenstein's the other week with Ashkenazy conducting, and has commissioned a new piece from him for June at the RFH. He's also writing a violin concerto for Dimitry Sitkovetsky. He's a live wire who thinks big, and talked to me (for the JC) about finding his voice and what he's doing with it now that he has.

It's All About Piano! Francoise Clerc, the one-woman dynamo at the heart of the Institut Francais's classical music programming, has put together an absolute bonanza of a piano festival, which will take place over three days next weekend, 22-24 March. Star performers include Imogen Cooper, Nick van Bloss, Charles Owen, Katya Apekisheva, Cyprien Katsaris and Anne Queffelec; there's a chance to hear some rising stars including a raft of the most gifted budding virtuosi from the Paris Conservatoire, a modern American programme from Ivan Ilic, jazz from Laurent de Wilde, talks by Steinway technicians, children's events and plenty more. When did London last have a piano festival like this? Um. Pass. This is for Classical Music Magazine and you'll need to be logged in to read the whole article.

Meanwhile, if you're in Birmingham on Wednesday evening or Thursday lunchtime, I'm doing pre-concert talks for the CBSO to introduce Beethoven's Symphonies Nos.6 and 7. Andris Nelsons conducts them both. Very privileged to be allowed to hold forth about my two favourite Beethovens, let alone to complement such an event: there's a major buzz about Nelsons' Beethoven cycle and Symphony Hall is apparently packed solid.

And next Sunday at 12.30pm I'm at The Rest is Noise to introduce a talk about Korngold in America and discuss the issues around him with the Open University's Ben Winters. In the Purcell Room, and part of the ongoing festival's American Weekend. (We're not in the current listings PDF as far as I can tell, so this may be a late addition!)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Introducing Karol

Outside the ICC in Birmingham yesterday there snaked a massive queue. Thousands upon thousands of of eager young people had turned out to support the CBSO, Karol Szymanowski and your blogger doing her pre-concert yak....oh, hang on. Across the mall from Symphony Hall were, um, auditions for Britain's Got Talent

Ironic that inside Symphony Hall all afternoon the CBSO Youth Orchestra - 110 young people aged 14-21 - were rehearsing Berg and Bartok and Bruckner, and they really do have talent. And, being mostly teenagers, the chances are that they don't regard angstful, emotional, challenging music as difficult, but identify themselves with it something chronic. We who remember what that was like sometimes wonder if those who wish to stop youngsters from facing that type of art were ever teenagers themselves. 

Anyway, a grand turnout for the evening event too, and huge thanks to the super Symphony Hall & CBSO team for all their help. 

Below is my script, for anyone who couldn't make it, or anyone who could and wants to have another look.


INTRODUCING KAROL 

It’s a great pleasure to be back in Symphony Hall to offer an introduction to an extraordinary composer of whom most of us know too little. He was much of his time, yet he was also ahead of it - to many he seems to be coming into his own today. He was much of his country, and yet his country barely existed except in his imagination. And he was part of an entire generation of composers who were marginalised in the philosophical and musical atmosphere that ensued after the second world war – a generation that it has taken decades to rehabilitate to the deserved degree. He is, of course, Karol Szymanowski.

He is one of those composers that most of us have heard of, though it’s by no means certain we’ll ever have attended a concert containing his music, nor that we’d be aware of what he wrote, when he wrote it, or why. Of course, to say this must be tempting fate here in Birmingham, because you probably know more about Szymanowski than audiences anywhere else in the country! That’s because perhaps his most important champion has been Sir Simon Rattle, whose performances and recordings with the CBSO, in the early 1990s, were vital in putting this wonderful composer back on the map where he belongs.

I’d like to read you a little of what Simon Rattle himself said about Szymanowski, and specifically about the Stabat Mater, which we will hear tonight. Here he describes his first encounter with the music:
"I was having lunch with my friend Paul Crossley, the English pianist. Paul was a man whose advice I used unscrupulously. He said, 'I've got something special for you', then sat at the piano and played a bit of some piece. I had no idea what it was, but it got me very excited and I knew it was love at first sight. It was the last part of the Stabat Mater.”
Rattle duly put the Stabat Mater into one of his first concerts with the CBSO, but he later felt he’d made one mistake: 
“I must admit with shame that the choir sang in Latin. We knew, though, that a Polish language version would need to be prepared. And we struggled with that difficult language. Only Finnish and Hungarian are said to be more difficult, and there is not too much similarity between the Birmingham dialect and the Polish language. Only ten letters are pronounced the same in English and in Polish. So it was a character building experience on all counts. It took a year to work with the choir, but apparently the sopranos can now be understood. I suppose that if Poles tried to sing in Welsh, they would understand our problems. We reached a point where language started to impact on the sound of the music, its rhythm. For instance, the holding out of the vowels and the proper start of the consonants has lent this music a specific pulse. The choir was no longer a group of English singers feeling aloof about a strange, obscure composition. They began to penetrate the music. It was an extraordinary trip. Szymanowski's music bought the ensemble, the choir and the orchestra.”
Then Rattle adds:
“I cannot talk objectively about Szymanowski, for you cannot expect objectivity or reasonability from someone in love. And reasonability is out of place when this music is concerned.”
So, for Sir Simon it was love at first sound. I think I know something of what he felt. I was about 14 when I first heard any Szymanowski, and what I heard was THIS:


[We didn't show this extraordinary little 'Cinephonie' film by Emile Vuillermoz last night, but I can't resist posting it this morning!] 

This is one of Szymanowski’s better-known pieces: one of his Mythes for violin and piano, composed in 1915, a period of his compositional life that is sometimes termed his “oriental impressionist” phase. It is entitled 'La fontaine d’Arethuse' – the fountain of Arethusa being a Greek myth about a nymph, whose virtue is saved from a pursuer by Artemis, who transforms her into a fountain. Szymanowski wrote that his aim was to capture not the narrative but the beauty of the myth – perhaps the aura of it. But it’s worth noticing that Szymanowski visited the actual fountain itself – it is on the island of Ortygia in Syracuse, Sicily, a place where his travels may have had much personal significance. More of that later.

There’s exoticism in here, without a doubt: the attraction of the ancient, the mythical, the magical, as well as the sensuality of the story and its watery imagery. This percolates into the music from several directions: the harmonies being the most obvious, then the extended and unpredictable lengths of the phrases, and the sheer range of subtle colours that he draws out of these two instruments through his exploration of texture and timbre. You can feel that unique personality, with its mix of emotional and intellectual intensity, that suffuses Szymanowski’s greatest works.

Szymanowski was born in 1882, in what’s now the Ukraine and was then Russia. A lot of Polish landed gentry had settled in that region after Poland was partitioned in 1795, divided up between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The family estate was called Tymoszowka and one wonderful description of their lifestyle says: “It was an aristocratic, cultured household, where music and literature were practised with a passion which drove less artistically-inclined guests to distraction.”

Part of what forms any composer’s outlook, and hence his legacy, is how he deals with the changing world around him. As you can imagine, a lifespan from 1882 to 1937 encompassed some of the biggest upheavals in European history. And how Szymanowski dealt with them contains its own fair share of paradoxes. As he himself said, he had a “fanatic love for the idea of Poland” – note the IDEA OF, rather than Poland itself.
Indeed, Poland at this time was more an idea than a place. But its spirit lived on in its music, especially that of Chopin, which is full of national dances, such as the mazurka, the krakowiak and the polonaise. Szymanowski in his early years certainly showed hints of influence from Chopin. However, let’s just come back briefly to the question of actual language.

I think it’s true to say that every great composer is influenced to some degree by the ebb and flow of his native language. Think of Bach’s cantatas or Schubert’s songs in German, or the way the French language permeates Fauré and Debussy; imagine Tchaikovsky without his Russianness. And Bartók could never have been Bartók without being Hungarian. This strain was especially true of music written in the late 19th century, when a sense of nationalism – usually in a relatively benign form – became increasingly crucial to many composers’ concepts of their own identity. The inflections of Polish, as much as Polish folk music, as Rattle noted, helps to give Szymanowski’s works their particularly plangent, pungeant quality – listen for the flow of the stresses and crunchy consonants during tonight’s performance. And it could be that because of the language, Szymanowski would have "sounded" Polish whether he liked it or not.

Szymanowski’s attitude towards Polishness in music was anything but nationalistic in the usual sense. He went to study in Warsaw, but found the general approach provincial: he preferred to follow the latest developments in western European music, especially German music. In 1905, when he was about 32, he joined a group of young Polish composers who sought to rise above any obvious folk element and wished to take the notion of a national music onto a higher plane.

So it wasn’t national dances that were the prime influence from this idealised Poland, but more the world of aestheticism, religion or spirituality, and nature, and the interrelation of them as they crystallised in Szymanowski’s inner world. Describing his First Violin Concerto, he once said: "Our national music is not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka … It is rather the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night in Poland." It’s clear that this has little to do with reality – it’s all about dreams, images, abstractions, even escapism, a train of thought that puts Szymanowski virtually in the line of the Symbolist movement, like Debussy.

Perhaps it’s ironic that much later in Szymanowski’s life he turned to extremely real Polish folk music to reinvigorate and reinvent his creativity after the traumas – political, personal and emotional – that beset him around 1918. In 1924 he became enchanted by the folk music of the Tatra mountains. He settled in Zakopane – it is now a famous resort, popular with keen hikers, and his house is now a museum. He chose the resort for its good air, because the one all too real thing that he had in common with Chopin was tuberculosis. But there was more to keep him in the mountains; he described the revelation of this indigenous Polish music as “the discovery of one’s own jewels”. The music of the Tatras is irresistibly rhythmic, intricate, filled with discord and astringency – he termed this ‘Polish barbarism’. Yet even towards the end of his life, interviewed in 1936, Szymanowski responded to a question about this by saying: “Folklore is only significant for me as a fertilising agent. My aim is the creation of a Polish style in which there is not one jot of folklore.”

His Op.50 consists of 20 superb and rather difficult mazurkas for piano. I still remember with absolute horror the time I was faced with one of them as a sight-reading test at university. The harmonic language is so rich and subtle that it is very hard to predict what the next chord should sound like if you’ve never heard it before. It’s that very richness, though, the extreme headiness of his personal language, that seems to get us hooked on him.

Here is an extract from no.2, played by Arthur Rubinstein.


Also in Zakopane, the area’s early church music began to make a profound impression on Szymanowski. This is reflected strongly in the Stabat Mater – its incantatory lines and primal types of rhythmic progression all suggest that it plucks at heartstrings that are very deep-rooted and very ancient. I’d contend that this gives Szymanowski a special place in the evolution of the music of today, and perhaps helps to account for his increasing recognition just at the moment. This Orthodox Church influence is something that he shares with more recent composers who are sometimes termed “Holy minimalist” – that label is admittedly not always a good representation of their work, and certainly Szymanowski himself is not remotely minimal. But we could consider Arvo Pärt, from Estonia, the late Henryk Gorecki, who was Polish too, and the British composer John Tavener on whom the influence of these eastern and exotic ancient sounds has been considerable. If you've enjoyed Tavener works such as The Protecting Veil - a magnificent cello concerto - the chances are that you will also get along well with the sound of Szymanowski. That brings Szymanowski closer to home than ever before.

So, what sort of person was Szymanowski and what impressions and influences spurred him on his personal journey? One musician who knew him well and championed his music was the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein. One night Rubinstein, aged about 17 and spending the summer in Zakopane, was startled by what he thought was an intruder in the garden. It turned out to be a medical student named Bronislaw Gromadzki, who just wanted to listen to him practising the piano. The two became friends and Gromadzki, a keen amateur violinist, asked if he could introduce the young pianist to his school friend Karol Szymanowski, whom he described as a composer of genius. Here’s how Rubinstein described the incident in his autobiography:
“Having had quite a few disappointments with so-called geniuses, I nodded patronisingly and said “I am working now, on some very serious works, but come tomorrow and let us see some of your friend’s little pieces.”
“It is difficult to describe my amazement after playing only a few bars of a prelude. This music had been written by a master! We read feverishly all the manuscripts, becoming more and more enthusiastic and excited, as we knew we were discovering a great Polish composer! His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations.”
Rubinstein wrote to Szymanowski to tell him what a great impression his music had made, and the young composer wrote back, saying he would soon be arriving in Zakopane. Rubinstein and his friends went to the station to meet him: 
“We awaited the arrival of the train with great excitement. Then there he was: a tall, slender young man. He looked older than his 21 years, dressed all in black, still in mourning for his father, wearing a bowler hat and gloves – appearing more like a diplomat than a musician. But his beautiful, large, grey-blue eyes had a sad, intelligent and most sensitive expression. He walked towards us with a slight limp, greeted his friend cordially but without effusion and accepted our warm welcome with a polite but aloof smile.”
It took Rubinstein a little while to get Szymanowski to open up, but once he did, in a more private setting, the two became fast friends.

They could scarcely have been more different. Rubinstein had a fun-loving, earthy, sensual nature which enabled him to get along with anyone and everyone. Szymanowski, by contrast, was a gay Catholic, a combination which perhaps contributed to the fact that he possessed a relatively tortured soul. He was deeply sensitive and intuitive, and had constantly the feeling of being an outsider. He didn't conform. So, for all his love of Polish culture, Polish culture and its officers did not always love him back. Later, as head of the Warsaw Conservatory from 1927 he struggled to introduce the idealistic reforms he sought, in the face of the traditional, conservative attitudes that got there first. He resigned after just five years.

He was a real Renaissance man, enormously cultured and with a profoundly enquiring mind that gave him a great appetite for travel, philosophy, writing about music, engaging with leading writers. His spheres of musical knowledge and the cocktail of influences he could draw upon was suitably broad as well – Debussy is very much there, Scriabin too, and later Stravinsky. And don’t forget Wagner. No composer of that era could forget him and Szymanowski was no exception. When Rubinstein met him he had just been to Bayreuth and heard Tristan und Isolde – a rite of passage for many composers. But his early passion for Wagner, and for Richard Strauss, was soon supplanted by the atmospheres he absorbed from travelling in Italy, Greece and North Africa, which represented a sort of liberation which is generally thought to have been sexual as well as cultural.

The First World War years at first brought him a positive form of isolation: Szymanowski had a bad knee, which meant that he was not conscripted, and he was able to spend several years on the family estate devoting himself to composition. It was then that he created some of his most enduring works, among them the Mythes, the First Violin concerto and the Third Symphony, as well as the Songs of an Infatuated Muezzin, the very title of which should be some indication of the degree to which the composer was in love with the orient and its sensual impressions. Then, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, Tymoszowka was ransacked in the family’s absence, the house was destroyed and the composer’s grand piano met a watery death in the lake.

Depressed and traumatised, Szymanowski found escapism in a different kind of creativity. He wrote a novel. A homosexual novel, for that matter. It was apparently inspired at least in part by his relationship with the librettist of his opera Krol Roger (King Roger): this was his cousin and a well-known poet, Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz, who himself wrote a number of poems about the pair’s travels together. They both evinced a deep passion for Mediterranean lands and were well versed in the region’s history. The degree to which Szymanowski’s musical sensibilities were affected by his homosexuality is a topic that merits probably more discussion than we have time for, but I’d like to offer that thought for those of you who are intrigued by it to take away and investigate further.

Much of the novel’s manuscript was destroyed by fire in 1939. But the opera, which is usually considered Szymanowski’s greatest work, has lived to convey a powerful legacy. It began to take shape in 1918 and was eventually premiered in 1926, the year in which he also wrote the Stabat Mater.

Szymanowski’s quest for self-knowledge, plus his obsessions with the orient, folk music and spirituality, were very much of their time, and indeed represent a link, if an indirect one, with an important strand of philosophy that ran through much music of the 1920s and before. Gustav Holst, whose music we also hear tonight, was one of many creative artists who involved themselves with Theosophy – a movement that claimed to be a sort of pan-theological short-cut to the spiritual heart shared by most world religions, by-passing the superficial trappings of religious tradition but also extending towards spiritualism, the occult and so on. 

Were they around today, this would be regarded as rather New Age, but in the first decades of the 20th century it was an influential force embraced by such figures as the poets Rabindranath Tagore and WB Yeats, besides composers such as the flamboyant Russian Scriabin, the rather quiet and modest Holst, and John Foulds, who was born in Manchester but eventually emigrated to India. Szymanowski’s own passions do not seem to have extended to theosophy, but I suspect that those who followed it could well have argued that they shared basic roots with the spiritual journey depicted in King Roger.

The opera is set in 12th-century Sicily – not far from the Fountain of Arethusa – and concerns the conflict in the king’s soul between duty and sensuality: a shepherd initiates him into Dionysian mysteries, gradually leading him towards greater self acceptance. In the end the King is able to embrace the full richness and complexity of life, as represented by Apollo. 

The music is strongly influenced on one hand by Debussy and on the other even more by Stravinsky. Certain phrases and effects seem to have stepped straight out of The Firebird. And yet you never feel that Szymanowski is lifting things gratuitously from other composers; rather, these feel like conscious references with which he is building up his own distinctive world which can’t be divided from everything he has found on his travels, be they physical or spiritual . Here is Queen Roxanna's song:


Tuberculosis eventually killed Szymanowski at the age of 54, well before his time. But perhaps he was ahead of his time. His time may be now. And today we can appreciate his art as part of a full and varied tapestry of music from the past century that goes much deeper and much wider than perhaps was initially realised. He once wrote: “I should like our young generation of Polish musicians to understand how our present anaemic musical condition could be infused with new life by the riches hidden in the Polish ‘barbarism’ which I have at last ‘uncovered’ and made my own’. And that did happen to some degree. Witold Lutoslawski and Roman Maciejewski were two composers who did just that early in their careers; and tangentially a tribute to Szymanowski lives on in the form of the composer Andrzej Panufnik’s daughter, Roxanna, now a prominent composer herself, named after King Roger’s queen.

There has never been such a rich musical century as the 20th, with such an array of different styles and approaches and philosophies, and it is wonderful to find long-underrated or misunderstood composers, such as Szymanowski, finally finding the audience they deserve. Perhaps Szymanowski himself is the shepherd who can lead us to embrace the full richness and complexity of musical life.





Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Historical: Szymanowski plays Szymanowski

Tomorrow evening I am doing a pre-concert talk about Szymanowski at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where the doughty CBSO, Ed Gardner and friends are performing the elusive Polish composer's Stabat Mater (more info on their site here). The talk will be along the lines of "Introducing Karol" - though I'm a tad aware that people in Birmingham are probably among the UK's most Szymanowski-aware, following Simon Rattle's championship of him and the magnificent recordings that resulted in the 1990s.

Do come along and say hi if you're in the area. Meanwhile, here is a Friday Historical of Szymanowski playing one of his own Mazurkas.