Friday, September 14, 2012

What the Dickens is going on?

A lovely festival at West Malling, Kent, near Gads Hill where Charles Dickens lived, is taking the chance to have a good look at the great author's connections with music. Seemed like high time someone did this, this being the Dickens bicentenary year, et al, so I asked its artistic director, Thomas Kemp, for an e-interview to explain what he's up to and why. Get down to Music@Malling from 27 to 30 September.

JD: Tom, what made you want to celebrate Dickens's musical life?

TK: I was brought up in Kent and had my first violin lessons in the kitchen at West Malling primary school! It is a very historic market town with a lot of interesting buildings from diverse historic periods. In the 19th century, Town Malling was famous for cricket and Dickens visited the village on many occasions - he immortalised the cricket ground in The Pickwick Papers - a scene that used to be on the back of a ten pound note: a landscape that can still be viewed from my old primary school.  The fact that there is this connection led me to programme music that was connected to him.

Music@Malling also promotes the work of living composers and this year the featured composers are Judith Bingham and Huw Watkins.

JD: Which were Dickens's favourite composers? With which musicians was
he friendly? In what ways was he supportive of them?

TK: Charles Dickens' sister Fanny was one of the first students at the Royal Academy of Music and he married into a musical family.  He loved opera, went to concerts and met many eminent performers and composers at dinner parties. These included Chopin, Mendelssohn, Auber and Meyerebeer.  He also met the soprano Jenny Lind and the violinists Paganini and Joachim. Dickens made some very astute observations about the music he heard and the performers he listened to. He particularly liked Mozart and appreciated Bach - Joachim played unaccompanied Bach to him in his house at Gad's Hill - a few miles away from West Malling. He described the experience as "more romantic and suggestive than most of the ravings today, which are set forth as profound and transcendental poetry." It was quite unusual to listen to "old" music during this period and Dickens astutely recognised that Joachim was the first great violinist to make a name for himself by playing the music of other composers rather than exclusively his own - as had been the case with Paganini.

JD: What influence do you think music had on his writing?

TK: There are many references to music in the novels and these are used to provide a fascinating social commentary on the function of music in 19th- century England, where music was the dominant form of domestic entertainment.  Many of the traditional airs and songs that he sang make their way into his writings and I think that there is a musicality to the way Dickens uses words.

JD: Tell us something about the Dickens-themed concerts you're doing at Music@Malling?

TK: The festival features his favourite composers: Mendelssohn, Chopin and Mozart and, in a concert on 28 September, there will be a series of readings from his works narrated by Matthew Sharp. Jonathan McGovern also will sing some of Dickens'  favourite lieder. There is a link with Judith Bingham in that she wrote a piano piece called Chopin which will be heard alongside the Chopin Cello Sonata and Trio in the 28 September lunchtime concert. One of the chamber works that Bingham wrote for Chamber Domaine focuses on the effect of war on children. My Father's Arms, a piece Bingham wrote that will be performed at the Festival, in a way is a mirror of the social concerns that run through Dickens' writings. Mozart features heavily in the programming as it provides an excellent balance to the contemporary music and he, by all accounts, was Dickens' favourite composer of all. The festival culminates with a performance of Symphony No.40 in G Minor, which has all the pathos and bitter-sweetness of a Dickensian novel.

Below: a sample from the inaugural festival shows Tom conducting Chamber Domaine in Mahler's Fourth as you probably haven't heard it before...