Sunday, September 30, 2012

It's Solti's centenary

Somewhere in the house I still have a little lapel button bearing the words BRAVO SOLTI. It's a treasured souvenir from the great conductor's 80th birthday party, hosted by Decca at a Knightsbridge hotel in 1992, at which the company that had hosted his whole recording career presented him with the gift of a mountain bike. It was the only time I ever met him, and then only for the briefest of handshakes. More enduring is the memory of his music-making, notably the greatest Mahler 5 I've ever heard.

A couple of months ago I went up to St John's Wood to see Lady Solti and interviewed her in her husband's studio, surrounded by Grammys, Hungarian souvenirs and an array of memorabilia from his many decades at the top of the musical tree.

Here's the first part of the results: a major article in this week's JC, offering a taste of the celebratory events that are currently swinging into action and also, I hope, giving an intimate portrait of Sir Georg, his motivation and the way his philosophy of life was underpinned by his sense of his Hungarian Jewish identity. Read the whole thing here.

Solti was principal conductor of my OH's orchestra for several years and was received by its players with widely varying degrees of devotion, of lack of it. OH, being from a whole family of outsize central European personalities, adored him - Solti reminded him of his grandmother. Others didn't know how to cope with him. Some players nicknamed him "the screaming skull". And years later, one cellist persistently threatened to run over our cat (who, as you know, is named in Sir Georg's honour).

In the article Charles Kaye, Solti's right-hand man for around 20 years, talks about how Solti would wake up every morning wanting to be better at what he did and how he could inspire an entire orchestra to follow suit. OH encountered this in one form or another many times. During one rehearsal, he says, Solti turned on the first violins and shook the nearest music stand at them. "You must play this better!" he shouted, in that famous Hungarian accent. "I pay you money if you play it better!" OH put up his hand and said: "How much?" Solti was joking, of course - but it turned out that he liked being joked at in return.

UPDATE: And by special request, here is a personal tribute:

Oh joy - it's Gluck!

Much looking forward to hearing the OAE's first "Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers" concert this evening: it stars the incomparable Anna Caterina Antonacci (right) singing Gluck, Cherubini and Berlioz, with Sir Roger Norrington conducting (Royal Festival Hall, kick-off at 7pm). It got me wondering why, when Christoph Willibald von Gluck's music had such a long-range influence, we rarely hear much of it today. So I did some swotting and dropped Sir Roger a line...

Gluck’s surname means ‘Joy’ – and so does his music. Or some of it. Hear Kathleen Ferrier’s recording of the aria ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ (‘What is life to me without thee’) from Orfeo ed Euridice and the directness and depth of the music is unmistakeable: it’s pure aural gold. 

Gluck was a pivotal figure in opera’s development, switching its emphasis away from the virtuosity of its singers to the core of the drama they were supposed to express. His works prepared the ground not only for the operas of Mozart, but also – many decades later – Berlioz and Wagner, who revered him. His biography was written by Alfred Einstein. Strange, then, that it is rare to hear much of his work today, beyond a few “greatest hits”. 

Without Gluck (who was born in the Upper Palatinate in 1714 and died in Vienna in 1787) the history of opera would have been unrecognisable. Berlioz summed him up, writing: “He innovated in almost every field... he was gifted with an extraordinary feeling for expression and a rare understanding of the human heart, and his sole aim was to give passions a true, profound and powerful language.” 

Gluck developed an antipathy to traditional baroque Italian opera seria – perhaps because he was not especially good at writing them. He enjoyed some early successes in the genre, but an attempt to establish himself in London came to a rapid and ignominious end, drawing harsh words from Handel, who famously declared that Gluck “knows no more counterpoint than my cook”. 

Counterpoint was not what interested Gluck. Literature inspired him, poetry, drama and character; when an opera libretto was underpowered, so, arguably, were his results. But at his finest, Gluck reached the cutting edge of Enlightenment composition well ahead of anybody else. 

Einstein made an intriguing accusation, however, suggesting that just after the success of Orfeo ed Euridice in 1762, Gluck reverted to the old opera seria style he disliked for an opera entitled Ezio – possibly for the sake of a good fee. Perhaps he did. But perhaps it didn’t matter: according to Sir Roger Norrington, Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution. 

“Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal,” he comments. “The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths – Gluck is basically a very serious composer, but he touches the heart with the strength of his feeling.” 

Gluck reached the zenith of fame via a tremendous controversy, stirred up as only Parisian high society knew how. He was the favourite composer of Marie Antoinette, who had once been his pupil in Vienna. With her help, he secured some operatic commissions in Paris in the 1770s and moved to live there. Madame du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV and no friend to his grandson’s queen-to-be, set up a direct opponent, championing a leading Italian composer of opera seria, Niccolo Piccini, and having him summoned to the French capital. Amid these musical dangerous liaisons, the city divided into passionate Gluckists and Piccini-ists, their fans even fighting duels to establish the superiority of their favourite. 

Ultimately the composers fought a musical duel, both writing operas on the same subject, Iphigénie en Tauride. The result? Gluck’s quality shone through for all to hear. 

Now it has a chance to do so again.

The OAE, Royal Festival Hall, 30 September, 7pm. Box office: 0844 875 0073

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Triumph of the Spirit

Viktor Ullmann's opera The Emperor of Atlantis, written in 1943 in Terezin, is a centrepiece of English Touring Opera's new season and opens at the ROH Linbury Studio on Friday. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I've written about it for today's Independent. Before the first performance some early evening events will include a short interview that I will give with Anita Lasker Wallfisch, cellist and survivor of Auschwitz, where Ullmann, his librettist and most others involved with the creation of this opera met their deaths.

Also, do see ETO's video about the opera:

In 1944 the Nazis released a propaganda film entitled The Führer Gives the Jews a City. Terezin, in north-west Bohemia, was the place in question: it had been turned into, supposedly, a show-camp, a smokescreen to blind the world to what was really going on in the other concentration camps. The film – an elaborate hoax – showed artistic individuals within Terezin engaging in creative activities, giving concerts and even putting on their own operas. It did not disclose the grimmer reality that more than 50,000 people were crammed into living quarters designed for 7000, where thousands were dying from starvation and disease. 

Much of Prague’s Jewish population was deported to Terezin, including a number of brilliant musicians and intellectuals; and, perhaps in a terrible irony, they were indeed able to pursue their creativity with what facilities were available. But after their deaths – many of them in the gas chambers of Auschwitz – the musical achievements of Terezin’s inmates, including the composers Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa, lay forgotten for decades, until in the 1970s efforts began to be made to rediscover them. 

This autumn English Touring Opera is taking up the cause of one of the most substantial works forged in these extraordinary circumstances: Ullmann’s hour-long opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis). In a new production by ETO’s artistic director and chief executive James Conway, and paired unusually with a staged Bach cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, it will be seen at the Royal Opera House for the first time (in the Linbury Studio), and will then enjoy its first-ever UK nationwide tour. 

Over the past 15-20 years the composers of Terezin have started to be widely recognised, though usually their works appear in programmes themed around Terezin itself. Now Ullmann’s opera will be required to stand as a mainstream work in its own right.

The libretto is by a gifted young poet Peter Kien, who was also imprisoned in Terezin. It is a black comedy poking fun at a dictator who faces a predicament when Death goes on strike (the original title was Death Abdicates). No prizes for guessing which dictator it satirised. That makes it all the more remarkable that the work reached its dress rehearsal in 1943 before the authorities spotted the nature of its content. Once they did, the performance was cancelled, the opera was banned and those involved were put on the next transport to Auschwitz. Ullmann and Kien met their deaths there in 1944.

Before Ullmann was forced into his last train journey, he gave the opera’s manuscript to a friend, a former philosophy professor, for safekeeping. Its survival seems miraculous. Yet it was only in 1975 that it was performed for the first time, in Amsterdam. The first British production was at Morley College in 1981.  

Ullmann more than deserves wider recognition. Born in 1898 in Teschen, Silesia, he was from a family of Jewish background that had converted to Catholicism; both he and his father served in World War I, and the young composer’s experiences in the conflict between Austria and Italy fed into The Emperor of Atlantis

He became a composition student of Arnold Schoenberg in Vienna and later of Alexander von Zemlinsky in Prague; his repute as a conductor soon grew as well, though he was dismissed from his post at a theatre in Aussig an der Elbe for selecting repertoire that was too adventurous. Fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, he established himself in Prague as writer, critic, teacher and lecturer until he was deported to Terezin in 1942. His output includes many excellent art songs and chamber music, as well as an earlier opera, Fall of the Antichrist

James Conway of ETO first directed The Emperor of Atlantis some years ago in Ireland; he felt it produced a powerful impact. “Ullmann was a fantastic composer,” he declares, “and I think Peter Kien was a beautiful and poetic writer. The opportunities to perform operas that have a truly poetic script are few – usually in opera, the words have to serve music and narrative. Here narrative is less important, while a visionary quality is more significant, involving political, social and spiritual discussion about life and death. It’s a brilliant depiction – perhaps of aspects of Terezin, but, even more, of a state of being.”

The music is a fragmented and eclectic mix of cutting-edge contemporary style, jazz influence and pastiche: “It literally goes from Schoenberg to vaudeville in the space of two bars,” says the conductor Peter Selwyn, who is at the helm for the tour. “It has moments of extraordinary lyrical beauty. And suddenly the drums come in and you’re whisked away into a showpiece number.”

The Bach Cantata, Christ lag in Todesbanden, has been specially orchestrated for almost the same forces that the Ullmann employs – including the saxophone, but minus the banjo – to unify the two soundworlds. “The Ullmann finishes with a chorale, so the evening will end with a mirror of the way it began,” Selwyn points out. “The Bach cantata concerns the triumph of the spirit and of humanity in the face of death and despair. And the triumph of life over death is the message of the chorale at the end of the Ullmann. That’s the message that we would like the Ullmann to have, bearing in mind the circumstances of its creation.”

“I want the evening to have a consonance about it,” says Conway. “There’s something about dying that declares the richness and integrity of life, and that declares we do not go nameless to death. That effort to take away names and histories we will resist. This opera is a beautiful testimony to the artistic lives of people at Terezin. Even though I insist that the piece has a life independent of the Terezin context, one can’t ignore it. And at the end of the piece I wish there could be applause for Ullmann, Kien and the performers who were taken and murdered before there could be a premiere.”

The Emperor of Atlantis, English Touring Opera, Royal Opera House Linbury Studio, from 5 October 2012, then on national tour until 17 November. Full tour details at

Friday, September 28, 2012

Gramophone needles

Quite a feast at the Dorchester yesterday for the Gramophone Awards.

First of all, it was Benjamin's big day [left]. Since the BBC has moved many of its TV operations, including the Breakfast news programme, to Salford - about 200 miles away from most of the action, eg. the government, a daft decision if ever there was one - he was up north at crack of dawn to appear there. Then whisked all the way back to London just in time to be catapulted onto live Radio 4, for which The World at One was able to cover the awards since the news of them was out early. Next, into the ballroom to accept two prizes, make a couple of speeches and play two party pieces [below], and receive the goodwill of the music industry, which was his by by bucketload.

The indefatigable James Jolly more than lived up to his name as he presented the prizes, aided and abetted by Eric Whitacre and "Sopranielle" de Niese, as someone managed to dub her. Danni treated us to a performance of Lehar's 'Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß', over which our host quipped "I bet they do"... Live music too from the mesmerising violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaya, playing the Bartok Romanian Dances in authentic Romanian Gypsy style; and Granados from Leif Ove Andsnes, who was in town to play at the RFH and came in to collect the chamber music prize, awarded to him and Christian and Tanya Tetzlaff for their glorious  recording of Schumann trios. [Above, he collects his award from Danni.]

There were touching moments aplenty. Think of the filmed interview with Murray Perahia, who scooped the new Piano Prize, proving yet again why genuine musicianship cannot be trumped by anything, ever; or the turbo-charged voice of Joseph Calleja, scooping Artist of the Year. Most moving of all, though, Vaclav Talich's granddaughter came in to accept the historical recording award on his behalf: his Smetana Ma Vlast, given in concert in 1939 two months after the Wehrmacht marched into Prague and featuring a moment in which the audience spontaneously broke into singing the national anthem. There's no other moment like it on disc, said Rob Cowan.

Priceless, too, was the announcement of Record of the Year, which went to the Baroque Vocal category for Schütz's Musikalische Exequien - from the Belgian choir Vox Luminis and its director Lionel Meunier. A towering figure (literally) with a blend of charm and modesty that captured everyone's hearts as he stood, overwhelmed, by the microphone [left], Lionel explained that the whole recording was organised in his kitchen and he could hardly believe he was going to go back to his choir the next day and say "We f***ing got Record of the Year!

Plenty of time for chat, gossip and networking in between, natch: a chance to clink glasses with some and say "Better times ahead?" and others to say "Bravi", and others still to reflect on the growing parallels between two of our greatest tenors now, Calleja and Kaufmann (who pre-recorded a thank-you speech for the Fidelio recording with Abbado and Nina Stemme that took the opera prize) and, respectively, force-of-nature Pavarotti and deep-thinking, dark-toned Domingo. 

Among my most interesting encounters was a discussion with a critic who'd come in from the pop culture world to see what it was all about. He was furious. Why? Because, he says, there's all this incredible music, yet it's somehow been sectioned off and the world at large never gets to hear it! The decision-makers in the British media don't include it as part of culture in general, and they should. It's been ghettoised. And not through any fault of its own - millions of people love it when they have the chance. Why keep it out of the mainstream with some cack-handed inverted snobbery that says the general public isn't capable of appreciating it?

One more Gramophone needle: here's the line-up of winners for the final group photo.

That's right, they're all blokes. 

Violinist Isabelle Faust won the concerto category, to be fair-ish; Tanya Tetzlaff features in the chamber music, and Nina Stemme in Fidelio, but the latter scarcely got a mention while everyone was drooling over Jonas's speech and adulating Claudio Abbado who won the Lifetime Achievement award. The two women who collected awards did so on others' behalf: Talich's granddaughter and Perahia's wife. 

Of course, there's a strong feeling that these awards are for musical achievement alone and gender balance shouldn't matter. In an ideal world, yes, fine. But this isn't one. Given the number of world-class female musicians on the circuit at present, how is it possible that only one-and-two-bits were among the winners of so many major awards? 

I still have the feeling that to be fully recognised as a woman musician, you must work five times as hard as the men and look perfect as well. There's an unfortunate double-bind in the music industry: those charged with selling the artists via image doll up the women as sex symbols, only for a fair number of critics to succumb at once, consciously or otherwise, to the prejudice that "they're being sold on their looks, so they can't be any good". This isn't the way it ought to be. 

I begrudge none of these marvellous male musicians their prizes: each and every one was fully deserved. Yet is it now time to introduce an alternative industry award, like the erstwhile-Orange Prize for Fiction, to boost the wider recognition of female classical musicians on the strength of their artistry, not their looks? Sad to say, but the answer is yes.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Just in: Meet the new BBC New Generation Artists

For 14 years Radio 3's BBC New Generation Artists scheme has had a way of...well, getting it right. From Simon Trpceski to Benjamin Grosvenor, they've listened, noted and grabbed for promotion some of the best talents out there. The youngsters certainly have to earn their status with concerts and broadcasts. There's spotlight aplenty over the two years they're in it: it is a challenge and they must meet it. But many of those that do have gone on to be bright stars indeed.

The scheme includes a "cross-section" of musicians from both classical and jazz disciplines and from a variety of countries, and they have already gathered, between them, garlands of awards and distinctions.

This year's intake has just been announced. Here they are:

Tenor Robin Tritschler (Ireland)
Classical guitarist Sean Shibe (Scotland) (UK)
Jazz saxophonist Trish Clowes (UK)
Cellist Leonard Elschenbroich (Germany)
Clarinettist Mark Simpson (UK)
Apollon Musagete Quartet (Poland)
Violinist Elena Urioste (USA)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Piano questions, please!

Last night you may have heard Erica Worth, editor of Pianist Magazine, joining Sara Mohr-Pietsch and Richard Sisson live on BBC R3 for Piano Keys. It's a talk show in the interval of the Piano Season's Monday evening recital, answering listeners' phone-in questions about all matters pianistic. Last night's questions involved the relative merits of digital instruments versus acoustic ones, what goes on in pianists' minds while they play, some rarities of French repertoire and a wonderful story about Myra Hess in the Blitz.

Next Monday it is JD's turn to be the guest in the hotseat.

If there's a question with which you'd like to call in, please email the team at: and if you missed yesterday's, you can catch up on the iPlayer here.

Other BBC Piano Season treats are plentiful - the most interesting stuff didn't make the headline material! Composer of the Week is Chopin. Sunday Morning with Rob Cowan featured some of Ignace Friedman's greatest recordings. And the Radio 3 Piano Masterclass with David Owen Norris is available to watch online here. Onwards...

Monday, September 24, 2012

A musical party game for the 21st century

Our new neighbours invited us to dinner the other day and showed us their latest musical toy. It's called Sonos and it is a wireless hi-fi system. It's controlled by a little palmtop remote computer thingy. All you need is a subscription to something like Spotify or Napster and a speaker in the right spot, and bingo: you have, literally at your fingertips, a vast library of music of any and every genre.

So here's the game. You choose a theme along which you'll make your selection - our host decided we should do "Guilty Pleasures" - and you pass the Sonos to the left, each taking a turn to add a piece of music to the queue, without letting anyone see what you've chosen. It's easy to use, though you have to watch out for those guests who like to click "Play next" instead of "Add to queue", hence overriding everything programmed beforehand, and simultaneously manage to set the thing to the whole of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

But once you've rapped that particular person over the knuckles, you hear Joseph Calleja right beside Tom Jones, Elvis next to a Schubert Impromptu, a selection from The Nutcracker beside a track sung by a pleasant, distinctive voice I didn't recognise, who turned out to be SuBo.

You get chocolate brownie points for choosing something on the evening's theme that nobody expected from you. It's not always easy to predict reactions: my Serge Gainsbourg choice seemed to leave everyone cold (how?), but I earned a round of applause for 'Careless Whisper' (we were all young in 1985...). And a bottle or two of Merlot later, our hostess, who says she listens mostly to rock music, astonished us all by singing along to The Queen of the Night.

The commodification of music? No, that happened decades ago. Instead, here comes something that can totally change the way we listen to and explore music. Take your average suburban dinner party: a CD of Vivaldi or Bocelli goes on in the background and nobody really notices it unless it's a problem. The Sonos, though, became the centre of our evening. We zoomed through the genres, talking about the music we enjoy and why we love it, each of us hearing music we'd never normally listen to, each of us surprising the others by revealing a character trait through our choices - or, indeed, a secret guilty pleasure.

Novelty value? Undoubtedly. But it's a little more as well. Like blogging back in 2004, this is a whole new and revolutionary notion. The old divisions can vanish: a Bach fan can admit fondness for Billy Joel, but also a rock chick can can discover she enjoys a spot of Wagner. Instead of "classical music" being ghettoised beside a soaring quotient of different popular genres, everything becomes fair game in the Sonos game.

Let's get rid of the division of music into popular and classical. Let's just have music as music. Just as Saint-Saens said, there is only good music, bad music...and the music of Ambroise Thomas.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Martinu's musical Magritte

If you like surrealism, you'll love Martinu's Julietta. It's now on at ENO in a slick staging by Richard Jones first seen in Paris about ten years ago. The set is a gigantic accordion - the sound of music being the one thing that can sometimes anchor the amnesiac population of the opera's seaside town to long-ago memories.

Michel, a Parisian bookseller, arrives with his suitcase in search of a mysterious girl whom he once heard singing. But nothing around him makes any sense - because the townsfolk can't remember anything for more than ten minutes. It sounds daft, and the incidents match that assessment. And yet...we all know people like that, and societies too. The resonance works. It works particularly well given that Martinu completed the work in 1938, when the world was a very mad place indeed.

When surrealism is at its best, the crazier it gets, the deeper it goes. I was fortunate enough to see a huge exhibition of Magritte in Vienna earlier this year, which was a revelation. With Julietta, Martinu hooks up the synapses in our minds in a similar way.

The opera is based on a play by the composer's friend Georges Neveux, which Martinu snaffled from under Kurt Weill's nose by getting to it about 48 hours earlier than his eminent colleague. Michel's final encounter at the Ministry of Dreams (photo above - photo credit Richard Hubert Smith) lends a hint of Kafka, and the circular nature of the drama, a recurring dream, a confluence with that terribly scary 1945 movie Dead of Night. Yet the absurdity lends an irresistible lightness. Does Michel really shoot his Julietta when the memories she wants to buy turn out to be nicer than the authentic ones? In which she recalls laughing at him because he looks like a stuffed crocodile?

Martinu is a hard sell and difficult to describe, especially as all most of us know of him is that he was born in a Czech bell tower and went on to lead an ever-shifting existence in the European vortex of the 1930s and, ultimately, the US. He was a great Francophile, though, and adopted Paris as home for some years. His music is not easy to pin down: hints of Debussy, virtual quotes from Stravinsky, some luscious love music in Act II that pulls in somewhere between Szymanowski and Rachmaninov. The voice of Martinu himself, however, is less obvious than the voices of others: at times, he seems not so much crocodile as chameleon. He offers us moments of great beauty and delicious, light-touch humour. Textures in the main are thin, allowing the words to project easily, the lines drawn with a deft swish of colour from a well-chosen instrument or two - often more Matisse than Magritte. It is a good opera, imaginative, fun, whimsical - and it's a joy to experience something as gently batty as this in an art form that frequently takes itself too seriously.

Of course, if you don't like surrealism, or imagination, or anything that isn't quite on the same level as Mozart, Puccini or Wagner, then you probably won't get it. A good few didn't. That's their problem. Why does every piece of music we hear have to be perfect? Yes, the best is the enemy of the good - but it doesn't invalidate those corners of creation in time that do have quality, if just a fraction less of it. They provide context, richness, insight and much to enjoy, even if not everyone can write The Magic Flute. And unusual, good-though-not-perfect works sometimes offer a welcome new experience, along with an angle that makes us think differently about their world and ours. If we heard nothing of opera but Mozart, Puccini and Wagner, life wouldn't be half so interesting.

Sterling performances all round: Peter Hoare more than holding the stage throughout as the mystified Michel, the Swedish soprano Julia Sporsen shining in every way as the red-haired Julietta, and vignette appearances by such fabulous personalities as Susan Bickley, Gwynne Howell and Andrew Shore, to name but three. Ed Gardner made Martinu's score both sensual and sparkly. Verdict: go see.

Here's an insightful review from The Observer by Fiona Maddocks.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why writing is like jazz

It's what we aspire to, and why we write and, I hope, why we read: the leap of the heart when it encounters something as perfect as this:
"The only thing to do, it seems to me, is to try for clarity, and stop worrying about it. Telling these stories is a delight it would be a pity to spoil by anxiety. An enormous relief and pleasure, like the mild air that refreshes the young count when he lies down to rest in "The Goose Girl at the Spring", comes over the writer who realises that it's not necessary to invent: the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for the jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can. Like jazz, storytelling is an art of performance, and writing is performance too. "
Philip Pullman in today's Guardian, writing about the joys of retelling the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Some fascinating historical stuff about them as well. Read it all here.

Friday, September 21, 2012

JD featured on Normblog

The eminent Norman Geras has been good enough to feature me as his latest Normblog Blogger Profile today. [*blush*]. Read it here:

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Losing the rhythm?

On Australian TV a report declares that today's musicians have "lost the rhythm" of romantic music. In this video, Professor Clive Brown (of Leeds University) explains that Brahms, Chopin et al would have expected their music to be played much more freely than we normally hear it now, with "sliding notes" and the like. Among research tools were early recordings, and so forth.

My goodness. Someone noticed? What in the name of heaven took them so long? This is a stylistic recognition that's existed for many years, but one has the impression that it had to be kept under the counter... High time it was out in the open and accorded the recognition that has attended other, sometimes less convincing theories about performance practice. And extraordinary to see it make national news on the other side of the globe.

Ebenezer Prout. Not invented by Dickens, or anyone else

Following a link in a lovely article by Angela Hewitt about preparing The Art of Fugue, I just rediscovered "Old Ebenezer Prout"'s perfect way to remember the subjects of all the fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier. It works a treat, especially the one about the little hippopotamus. And they are a delicious insight into the fads, foibles and mindset of Victorian England (Prout's dates: 1835-1909). Just for fun, here are the words for the lot. Followed by Angela's performance of the B major Prelude & Fugue from Book 2 - "See what ample strides she takes"!

Here is an excellent article by Havergal Brian about what Prout, a distinguished musicologist, critic, composer and teacher, was really about. He's worthy of a starring role in a Dickens novel, but happily he was 200 per cent real.

Meanwhile, Angela's article is here. I am doing an interview with her in the Royal Festival Hall on 2 October, before the first of her two recitals.

Book I

  1. He went to town in a hat that made all the people stare.
  2. John Sebastian Bach sat upon a tack, but he soon got up again with a howl!
  3. O what a very jolly thing it is to kiss a pretty girl!
  4. Broad beans and bacon...(1st countersubject)...make an excellent good dinner for a man who hasn't anything to eat.(2nd countersubject)...with half a pint of stout.
  5. (Subject) Gin a body meet a body Comin' through the rye,
    (Answer) Gin a body kiss a body, Need a body cry?
  6. He trod upon my corns with heavy boots—I yelled!
  7. When I get aboard a Channel steamer I begin to feel sick.
  8. You dirty boy! Just look at your face! Ain't you ashamed?
  9. Hallo! Why, what the devil is the matter with the thing?
  10. Half a dozen dirty little beggar boys are playing with a puppy at the bottom of the street.
  11. The Bishop of Exeter was a most energetic man.
  12. The slimy worm was writhing on the footpath.
  13. Old Abram Brown was plagued with fleas, which caused him great alarm.
  14. As I sat at the organ, the wretched blower went and let the wind out.
  15. O Isabella Jane! Isabella Jane! Hold your jaw! Don't make such a fuss! Shut up! Here's a pretty row! What's it all about?
  16. He spent his money, like a stupid ass.
  17. Put me in my little bed.
  18. How sad our state by nature is! What beastly fools we be!
  19. There! I have given too much to the cabman!
  20. On a bank of mud in the river Nile, upon a summer morning, a little hippopotamus was eating bread and jam.
  21. A little three-part fugue, which a gentleman named Bach composed, there's a lot of triple counterpoint about it, and it isn't very difficult to play.
  22. Brethren, the time is short!
  23. He went and slept under a bathing-machine at Margate.
  24. The man was very drunk, as to and fro, from left to right, across the road he staggered.

Book II

  1. Sir Augustus Harris tried to mix a pound of treacle with a pint of castor oil.
  2. Old Balaam's donkey spoke like an ass.
  3. O, here's a lark!
  4. Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle! The cow jumped over the moon!
  5. To play these fugues through is real jam.
  6. 'Ark to the sound of the 'oofs of the galloping 'orse! I 'ear 'im comin' up Regent Street at night. (Countersubject:) 'Is 'oofs go 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer, on the 'ard 'ighway.
  7. Mary, my dear, bring the whiskey and water in—bring the whiskey and water in.
  8. I went to church last night, and slept all the sermon through.
  9. I'd like to punch his head...(countersubject:) ...if he gives me any more of his bally cheek.
  10. As I rode in a penny bus, going to the Mansion House, off came the wheel—down came the bus—all of the passengers fell in a heap on the floor of the rickety thing.
  11. Needles and pins! Needles and pins! When a man's married his trouble begins.
  12. I told you you'd have the stomach-ache if you put such a lot of pepper in your tea.
  13. Great Scott! What a trouble it is to have to find the words for all these subjects!
  14. She cut her throat with a paper-knife that had got no handle. (Subject, bar 20:) The wound was broad and deep. (Bar 36:) They called the village doctor in: he put a bit of blotting-paper on her neck.
  15. The pretty little dickybirds are hopping to and fro upon the gravel walk before the house, and picking up the crumbs.
  16. Oh, my eye! Oh, my eye! What a precious mess I'm getting into today.
  17. I passed the night at a wayside inn, and could scarcely sleep a moment for the fleas.
  18. Two little boys were at play, and the one gave the other a cuff on the head, and the other hit back. (Countersubject:) Their mother sent them both to bed without their tea.
  19. In the middle of the Hackney Road today I saw a donkey in a fit.
  20. He that would thrive must rise at five.
  21. The noble Duke of York, he had ten thousand men, he marched them up the hill, and marched them down again.
  22. O, dear! What shall I do? It's utterly impossible for me to learn this horrid fugue! I give it up! (Countersubject:) It ain't no use! It ain't a bit of good! Not a bit! No, not a bit!, No, not a bit!
  23. See what ample strides he takes.
  24. The wretched old street-singer has his clothes all in tatters, and toes showing through his boots.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Breaking news: Music is left out of education reform again

Legacy? What legacy? The runaway success of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival looked set to prove to everyone that the UK's arts scene is second to none. But that's meaningless without the follow-up of lasting care and attention at grass-roots level - ie, in education. And as our dear government - specifically Michael Gove, the education minister - announces further plans for the reform of the schooling system, this time replacing GCSEs with something called the EBac, creativity and the arts are not just out in the cold, but nowhere to be seen.

Of course, the government has already excised state funding in its entirety from all arts further education in England, including from all the music colleges. While many of us have felt it best to give the directors of those institutions the space and privacy to negotiate behind the scenes for the most positive outcome possible, I can't help feeling we should have yelled a bit more about it from the start. To trumpet the excellence of British arts during the Olympics, while simultaneously removing the hope of training for anyone who can't access the funds to pay for it, represents mendacious hypocrisy at its zenith.

The Incorporated Society of Musicians has produced a strong response to the omission of arts and creativity from the EBac, pointing out that in the end it's the UK economy that's going to suffer. Here's the ISM's statement.

Missed opportunity for the economy as Government forgets the Olympics lessons

The Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) – the UK’s professional body for music teachers, performers and composers – has condemned the proposals for GCSE reform which threaten to damage not just our children’s education but also our economy.

Having criticised the English Baccalaureate (EBac) in its original incarnation, the ISM is even more concerned at the present proposals which will increase pressure on pupils to study the six areas of maths, English, sciences, languages and humanities with no creative subjects at all being present.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the ISM, said:

‘These proposals represent a missed opportunity to reform our education system. Michael Gove will ensure with these so-called reforms that the UK loses its competitive edge in the fields in which we are world class. It is as if the Olympics never happened. Design – gone, technology – gone, music – gone.

‘This short sighted, wholesale attack on secondary music education will emasculate not only our world class music education system but also our entire creative economy which is estimated as contributing up to 10% of our GDP.

‘In its present form, intellectual and rigorous subjects like music are nowhere to be seen in the EBac offer. In its present form, the CBI, Creative Industries Council, ISM and Cultural Learning Alliance are all seeking reform of the EBac to include at least some of what the UK economy is good at: creativity and culture.’

Diana Johnson, Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Music Education and a former education minister said:

‘The Secretary of State for Education has clearly forgotten all his warm words about music education in the past to launch an assault on music in secondary schools. Music education in the UK is world class, contributing hugely to our economy. The absence of music and any other creative or innovative subject from the EBac will further undermine the UK's progress in some of the growth generating industries of the future. We just saw Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies showing off some of the best of British music, design and creativity. The Government should at least include music in the English Baccalaureate.’

Fact checker: Gaps in the Secretary of State’s statement

1. In his statement to Parliament, whilst warning that the previous ‘examination system [had] narrowed the curriculum’ Mr Gove continued to promote the EBac, a course which is causing schools to drop music and other creative and cultural subjects.
2. Whilst claiming that higher education providers back the English Baccalaureate, Mr Gove forgot to mention that advice from the Russell Group only refers to post-16 study, not pre-16 study, and forgot to mention some Universities – like Trinity College Cambridge – make their own list of rigorous subjects which include music.
3. Whilst claiming that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) had backed ‘widespread view among business that we needed to reform GCSEs’ Mr Gove forgot to mention that the CBI has explicitly criticised the EBac in its present form for omitting creative and technical subjects from the EBac.

Deborah concluded:

‘This Government was formed with the claim that they knew how to get the economy moving, yesterday, they proved that this was not the case. You would be forgiven for forgetting that the Olympics, Cultural Olympiad and Opening and Closing ceremonies had just taken place. You could be forgiven for missing out the importance of creativity, technology and the UK’s leading position in the music industry to our economy.’