Friday, January 31, 2014

The man who "made an honest woman out of jazz"

It's a foggy day in London town this morning, so here is something cheering for a Friday Historical (after a week dominated for me by tonsils the size of golf balls): a compilation from some wonderful radio programmes in which George Gershwin is at the piano playing his own works, answering interview questions and, in another extract, presenting his music. The show he mentions in the first one, Pardon My English, opened on Broadway in January 1933, so this interview - in which the presenter describes GG as "the man who made an honest woman out of jazz" - probably took place shortly before that. Along the way, he declares Jerome Kern's Showboat to be "the finest light opera achievement in the history of American music". And there is much more besides. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Can't help loving that man...

It's Don Giovanni. Why on earth do we find him irresistible? Clue: clever librettist plus divine composer, but there are darker factors at work too. I had some interesting chats with Mariusz Kwiecien (who sings him in the ROH's new production next week) and the great Gerald Finley about the Fifty Shades of Don Giovanni and my piece is in the Independent today.

Meanwhile, here is another of the all-time greats - Simon Keenlyside - in what's perhaps the defining moment of the whole staged by Calixto Bieito. Covent Garden's new production opens on Saturday night, directed by Kasper Holten. Anything could happen!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ed is leaving ENO...

Sobs in sunny Sheen today upon the news that Edward Gardner is leaving English National Opera. The highlights of his stint as music director have been many and various - I'd pick out his Der Rosenkavalier, The Flying Dutchman, Wozzeck and The Damnation of Faust, to name but a few, as some of the most exciting operatic treats of the past several years. The vitality, intelligence and sheer electric delight of his music-making have never failed to light up the Coliseum. The job now passes not to another young whizz-kid (Ed was 31 when appointed), but to Mark Wigglesworth: a tried, tested, known, solid, liked and respected British musician, who will probably do a jolly good job. Ed, though, is off to Bergen, which unfortunately is in Norway and not accessible via the District Line. Excuse me while I go and have a howl.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

One to watch: Kristine Balanas

Meet Kristine Balanas, 22, from Latvia, an advanced student at the Royal Academy of Music. She's a very lucky young violinist as she will be joining Yuri Bashmet in a concerto performance with the Moscow Soloists at the Barbican on 1 February, and will be on BBC Radio 3's In Tune with him the day before. Currently she's studying with Gyorgy Pauk and she's due to graduate this summer. I recently had a tip-off about her - and sure enough I find her musicianship quite enchanting.

For the 1 February the RAM is lending Bashmet and a few members of the orchestra some instruments from the institution's top-notch collection of stringed instruments. Should be a fun evening. (Though I suspect Kristine is playing SCHUBERT, not the SHUBERT currently advertised on the Barbican website!)
The Mozart concerto above was filmed at the 5th Sendai International Music Competition last May.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Monday, January 20, 2014


Tragic news from Italy this morning that Claudio Abbado has passed away. Here is the report in Il Post.

Farewell, dear maestro. You were, I think, the most beloved of them all.

Below, his official biography from DG. Here, a fantastic gallery of photographs across the decades, from Italy's Repubblica. [UPDATE, 4.40pm: my appreciation of him, for The Independent, is online now.]

For a man who has dedicated a lifetime to music, Claudio Abbado – who celebrates his 80th birthday in June 2013 – has few words to describe his work as a conductor. He prefers to speak through the music, something he has been doing with extraordinary results for over half a century. Little interested in celebrity, he once said: “The term ‘great conductor’ has no meaning for me. It is the composer who is great.” They are not empty words, for he has demonstrated their meaning through his innate ability to go directly to the heart of a wide range of music.
Claudio Abbado was born into a musical and artistic family in Milan in 1933, and studied piano, composition and conducting at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in his home city, before going to Vienna to follow a postgraduate course in conducting in the mid-1950s. He won the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Koussevitzky Prize in 1958.
He made his debut in 1960, at the Teatro alla Scala, and was appointed music director there at just 35, remaining in post from 1968 to 1986. Three years after his debut he won the Mitropoulos Prize, and worked for several months with the New York Philharmonic as assistant to Leonard Bernstein. He was then invited by Herbert von Karajan to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time at the Salzburg Festival in 1965. In the same year he directed the world premiere of Giacomo Manzoni’s Atomtod at La Scala.
He was known for ground-breaking initiatives in Milan, expanding the repertoire to embrace major new works. He introduced guest conductors, such as Carlos Kleiber, and discouraged notions of elitism by opening up the house to a wider audience, presenting a concert programme specifically for students and workers.
During his 18 years in Milan, he also became music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, where he served from 1979 to 1987. He was music director of the Vienna State Opera from 1986 to 1991, and in 1987 became Generalmusik­direktor of the City of Vienna.
At the end of 1989, amid the turmoil and optimism of the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was elected by the players of the Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Karajan as the orchestra’s artistic director, and again his appointment led to the establishment of new initiatives, such as the Berliner Begegnungen, an opportunity for young players to perform with established artists. Abbado was forced to stand down from the podium for several months in 2000 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but he returned to the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic for two final seasons, during which he conducted Parsifal and Lohengrin in Berlin, Edinburgh and Salzburg.
Throughout his career, Claudio Abbado has been a champion of contemporary music. He has promoted the works of Nono, Stockhausen, Rihm and many other composers. In 1988, while serving at the Vienna State Opera, he initiated the “Wien Modern” Festival, offering 20th-century music its own platform in Vienna.
Abbado devoted much time to nurturing young talent, and was founder and music director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, which developed into the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in 1981. He also founded the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 1986, formed the highly acclaimed Lucerne Festival Orchestra in 2003 and the following year was named musical and artistic director of The Orchestra Mozart in Bologna.
In 1967 he began what was to become an extraordinary and long-lived relationship with Deutsche Grammophon. It is an indication of his musical maturity even relatively early in his career that his first recording for the label remains in the catalogue to this day: an iconic account of Ravel’s G major piano concerto and Prokofiev’s Third with the Berlin Philharmonic and soloist Martha Argerich.
Abbado’s recording history reflects the story of his musical career. La Scala productions that he recorded include Simon Boccanegra and Macbeth, with the theatre’s orchestra and chorus. His years with the London Symphony Orchestra saw many recordings, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Cenerentola and notably music by Mozart (piano concertos with Rudolf Serkin), Mendelssohn (symphonies), Ravel, Stravinsky and Debussy. When he moved to Vienna in 1986, it was the beginning of a tenure which saw many legendary productions, including Wozzeck and Pelléas et Mélisande, both preserved on record by DG. His recordings with the Berlin forces include a complete set of the Beethoven piano concertos with his long-standing colleague Maurizio Pollini and, in 2001, his second cycle of the Beethoven symphonies (his previous cycle, with the Vienna Philharmonic, had been issued in 1989). A complete cycle of Mahler symphonies, including the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic and Berlin Philharmonic, was released in 1995. With the Chamber Orchestra of Europe he conducted recordings of Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims and Schubert’s complete symphonies (both winners of Gramophone’s “Record of the Year” award, in 1986 and 1988 respectively).
In time, Abbado amassed a huge discography on Deutsche Grammophon, including the entire symphonic works of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Schubert, and more than 20 complete operas. For Abbado’s 80th birthday year there will be two new releases with the Orchestra Mozart (Mozart Concertos and Schumann Overtures and Second Symphony) and a 40-CD Symphonies Box. 
Among the many awards bestowed on Claudio Abbado are the Bundesverdienstkreuz – Germany’s highest award –, the Légion d’honneur and the Mahler Medal. In 2012 he was honoured with a Gramophone “Lifetime Achievement Award” and won the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Conductor. The citation for the RPS award summed up a conductor who has given so much to music: “Every one of the infrequent but annual appearances by this conductor produces a performance of indelible, life-changing moment. His extraordinary, revelatory concerts with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra … changed perceptions, and raised the bar once again on what it is possible for a group of musicians to achieve.”

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A filmed interview

The lovely Melanie Spanswick has uploaded to her Classical Piano and Music Education Blog a filmed interview with me for her Music Talk series, complete with forthcoming concert dates for my stage projects and some wonderful Ravel played by Viv McLean at one of our Alicia's Gift concerts. Please pop over to her site, here.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The girl who beat Trifonov

Last night I had my first introduction (live) to the playing of Yulianna Avdeeva, winner of the 2010 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. She took first prize as Daniil Trifonov pulled in third (and second prize was shared between Wunder and Geniusas, two contestants with fine names in every sense). To say that the competition sent waves of controversy through the pianophile community at the time probably isn't saying enough. The petite Russian girl from Munich is 28 years old, clad in a tailcoat, not much taller than I am and, unless I'm much mistaken, the first woman to win the Chopin since Argerich. And I'm very glad to report that she is the real deal, plus some.

She played Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 at the Royal Festival Hall last night with the LPO and Jurowski. They are all now on a plane to Spain, where late-night audiences in Madrid can catch them this evening.

From the very first entry Avdeeva showed a musical and intellectual sophistication that is several cuts above the average. She has an astonishing sense of the ineffable in sound: she can conjure a mezza voce that is both translucent and mysterious, filled with Brahmsian innigkeit, for instance; it's somewhat Kaufmannesque in concept. She spins long, wonderfully shaped melodic lines, but builds the music from the bass up, through the harmonic structure, and has the full compass of counterpoint, voicing and balance (listen to the close-knitted coda of the Chopin Fourth Ballade above, for example - it's carefully managed yet never loses fire). She may be slender, but her power, when fully unleashed, is thunderous; and that unleashing only happens when the music calls for it.

I can think of few pianists who can blend with the orchestral texture so ideally - many wouldn't even think of doing so, but at times this mighty concerto became nearly a concertante piece as Avdeeva duetted with the solo horn, accompanying, exchanging, playing chamber music, assuming a collegial role as one part of the massive and inspiring whole. There's a mesmerising beauty and intelligence to her interpretation and something that I don't mind classifying as an old-fashioned classiness of the best type: fully informed and intellectually aware yet deeply intuitive as well and with the ability to find not only the right sound for Brahms but the right sounds for every shade of his very considerable spectrum. It's worth adding that the players adored her awareness of orchestral sound and interaction, and one violinist declared it one of the best Brahms Firsts he's played in in 28 years.

Given this level of musicianship, the cruelty of some of the 2010 competition reviews is simply  staggering. But John Allison from the Telegraph was there and was hugely impressed with her. Let's hope she will come back soon.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The other Lloyd Webber

That was Aurora by William Lloyd Webber - the most substantial piece of orchestral music, as far as we know, by the father of Andrew and Julian. His centenary falls this year, on 11 March, and there's to be a big celebratory concert that day in St Martin-in-the-Fields, led by Julian. I've been exploring William's music and, in short, am quite in love with it. The other day I had a good chat with Julian about life with his father and the legacy of William's music - personified by his influence on Andrew.

I also had a wonderful talk with John Lill, who knew the family extremely well as a young man, and as I'd like this celebration to be an ongoing thing, I will post that interview here a little closer to the anniversary date. In the meantime, here is my introduction to William Lloyd Webber in today's Independent. Enjoy.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

New baton announced for the LPO

Born in Colombia, living in Vienna, flexing his muscles and charming the everything off everyone, to judge from this video from Portland, here comes the new boy at the London Philharmonic. Andrés Orozco-Estrada (he pronounces his own name Orozcestrada) has today been announced as the band's new principal guest conductor, taking over when Yannick Nézet-Séguin's tenure concludes at the end of this season. I haven't seen him in action live yet. He only conducted the LPO for the first time a couple of months ago.

Here he is conducting the Tonkunstler Orchestra in the Figaro overture.

We look forward to getting to know him. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

We could live and learn, given half a chance...

This is my latest Soapbox post for
The gist of it is that classical music's obsession with attracting youth may be a little misplaced...

Monday, January 13, 2014

My top ten wishes for music in the new year

1. Re performers, I wish we might see the return to these shores of the pianists Grigory Sokolov, Krystian Zimerman, Martha Argerich and Menahem Pressler.

2. Re audiences, I wish for the principle to be established that you have a responsibility to consider other people as well as yourself - you may have bought a ticket, but so have they. Therefore during the concert you don't talk, you switch off all functions of your phone and you - er - listen to the music.

3. Re orchestras and other ensembles, I wish that those who depend on their local councils for life-giving tranches of funding could find alternative sources, fast. I fear they will need them. Here is the first of what will be many such problems: the BBC Philharmonic's grant is being slashed by Salford Council, which - shamefully - is also ending its contribution to music and performing arts in schools, according to this report from the Manchester Evening News.

4. Re programming, I wish for scope, breadth and depth. I am sick of pianists in particular programming same old same old. Do you know how much piano repertoire there is? More than any of us could possibly read through in one lifetime. So no more Schumann Etudes Symphoniques; why not Gesange der Fruhe? And enough of the last three Schubert sonatas; why not the G major or the big D major instead, or, if you can face its challenges, the "little" A minor? This could go on, but you get my drift.

5. I also wish for plenty of Andrzej Panufnik, whose centenary falls this year. He is a neglected master and he's due for a big-time return to the concert hall. Watch this space for further details of the centenary plans so far. At least there's a good chance of this wish being fulfilled.

6. I wish that Sir Simon Rattle would confirm or deny, definitively, whether or not he is coming to head the LSO. Preferably the former.

7. An end to witch-hunting and bullying in all its forms. The notion that a composer/performer/any individual who does something artistic/creative/literary/etc should be judged in that activity first by his/her personal beliefs/sayings/doings in matters of religion/sex/politics/etc is insidious and daft.

8. I wish that along with endeavouring to increase levels of sponsorship, membership, Friends schemes etc, there could be an increased sense of responsibility to those who can't afford to be among them. Venues exist that sell out to their members before anyone else gets a look in. Some of those venues keep day seats for which you can queue. Those that don't currently do this should start. The ones that already do should keep more day seats.

9. I wish that some doughty, important and fearless conductor would decide that it is OK to perform Mozart operas with a bit of vibrato and an orchestra that's non-microscopic in size.

10. Last but by no means least, I wish for the realisation of my dream of an awards ceremony to celebrate and raise the profile of the great achievements of women in music. And I'm sure Fanny Mendelssohn (right) would approve.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Where are all the new operettas?

There aren't many around. But over in Munich, our friend Alexander Krampe has arranged the music of Ernst Fischer (1900-1975) for a new production, Charley's Aunt, at the Munich Kammeroper - and it looks like they've got a hit on their hands. The critic of Munich's Nachtgedanken says he had a tummyache from laughing so much and moreover found himself asking the lady next to him at the interval bar if she really was a woman... Read more here (auf Deutsch - Google Translate does an OK job). More here, too.

We spent Christmas with Alexander and his fiancee Friederike in Walchensee...a special place, long story, saving it up for exploration at length....and fell roundly in love with Fischer's insoucient soundworld, his finesse and catchiness and the general delicious whirl of his writing. There's not an awful lot about him out there, but there is a scant paragraph on Wiki.

His most famous piece is South of the Alps. Here it is performed by the Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra. I hope his name will become much better known very soon. Happy Saturday!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

High Five to LondonJazz! A guest post from its founder...

Delighted to hand over a guest spot today to my friend and former student-of-sorts (!), Sebastian Scotney, whose runaway blog success story, LondonJazz, celebrates its fifth birthday tomorrow. Here he is, along with his chosen video to mark the occasion! JD

I attended one of Jessica Duchen's writing courses and found it empowering. A few months later I started a blog about the London jazz scene.  Five years on, writing about and trying to encourage more coverage of the scene has brought me where I want to be: closer to the music.
The scene in London is lively, there are always new discoveries to be made. I get nice roles, such as being asked to compere the Whirlwind Recordings Festival at Kings Place in October.

Jess, you will be asking where the women are? This video is of the launch  the debut album at that festival by Shetlands-born saxophonist/composer Rachael Cohen, a real rising star. Having done the introductions, I was sitting in the front row, alongside her proud parents.

You get an idea of the freshness, inventiveness  and fluency of Rachael's improvising after 3:05

Sebastian Scotney

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Road rage?

My Amati column this week tackles a few niggles about musicians' schedules and aspirations, and conversely, what we tend to expect of them...

Friday, January 03, 2014

Dangerous living, with JS Bach

I've long been an admirer of the extraordinary South African pianist Daniel-Ben Pienaar, whose recordings of Bach and Mozart in particular have struck me as profound, original, fresh, thought-provoking and utterly authentic in terms of the spirit of the music. Among his many roles, he teaches at the Royal Academy of Music and Benjamin Grosvenor has often cited him as a vital mentor. Daniel-Ben has just recorded the Bach 48 Preludes and Fugues (out now on Avie) and a few weeks ago he performed them whole at Kings Place. I asked him for an e-interview about this, but he wanted to wait - sensibly enough - until that particular hurdle was out of the way. Here is our resulting Q&A.

JD: Daniel-Ben, most of us have enough trouble playing just one fugue, let alone 48 of them plus preludes. How does it feel to perform them - the prospect beforehand, the sustaining of energy through the concert and then the aftermath?

DBP: There are some things that will never become easy and this is one of them. My recent concerts at King’s Place in London were a new experience for me – I had never played the two books back to back on consecutive evenings. I think it is impossible to completely banish worrying about a memory slip somewhere along the line no matter how ‘in the bones’ the music sits, but the bigger challenge for me was to make peace with living dangerously in other ways too: sustaining the greatest possible variety of pacing, dynamics, phrasing, pedalling and touch throughout the 96 pieces (sometimes at physical extremes) to really make palpable the encyclopaedically inclusive nature of the work to an audience – its diversity of characterisations, of emotions, atmospheres and colours, of musical ideas – in a truly pianistic way.

That means leaving very little room for ‘digging in’ for security, for putting up safety nets by defaulting to moderate tempi or comfortable tonal calibrations wherever difficulties present themselves. Living with that level of risk can be frightening but the rewards when things go well are so much finer! I have no idea whether I was successful on this occasion, but I certainly enjoyed working at it – and would love to perform the cycle again!

JD: How would you describe your approach to Bach performance? Do you think it's necessary to adhere to traditions or do you prefer to free yourself of all preconceptions about the music?

DBP: I do not think one could safely make any rules about Bach performance (or any other for that manner) - that is, as long as you think that playing piano is, at its best, an artistic endeavour! Good artists have always confounded or subverted given expectations. How one frees oneself from the sense of adhering to a set of conventions or commonly accepted mores is a complex issue though. It is almost inconceivable to me that, doing something as intricate and beautiful as playing the piano, one could NOT be deeply interested in the work of eminent exponents present and past (imagine a chess player who claims to be uninterested in the great matches of the grand masters!). Exploring the expressive means and ideas of these artists in some detail, one inevitably ends up having to face the anxieties and challenges of influence. Finding a playful freedom and a fresh sense of the intuitive beyond that remains the ultimate goal but getting there is an often arduous process. So, in short I would say I am less interested in the dictates of particular traditions than I am in the highly personal playing of some of the great exponents of those traditions, and the specifics of that. I think at this point in pianistic history it becomes possible to see the two things as separate to a certain degree.

JD: Some might argue against playing Bach on the modern piano. What would you say in favour of it?

DBP: See my answer above! Playing the music on the ‘wrong’ instrument, if it happens to be the queen of instruments – an instrument which has a reputation above any other for successful transcription and transformation, even transubstantiation (!), and can perhaps boast a more illustrious roster of great practitioners than any other (save the voice) – opens up a set of artistic possibilities quite distinct from those open to musicians playing on instruments of Bach’s day. The sensitive pianist does not merely take into account the instruments and practices of the late baroque but also of subsequent eras. This becomes a rather wonderful way of engaging, through Bach’s rich scores, with all sorts of histories and thus with that which remains timelessly human in the music. In any case those who still argue against playing Bach on the piano can only do so on grounds of personal taste. The whole ‘hardware’ debate is in fact one that is really quite a bit in the past, and as far as I am concerned came to decisive end with the priorities outlined in Laurence Dreyfus’s “Early Music Defended Against Its Devotees”. Those who still think there is an intellectually coherent argument contra playing Bach on the piano are simply horribly behind the times!

JD: We understand you've recorded the 48 - and we look forward to hearing it. What was it like, doing that? Are you a Glenn Gould in the studio, seeking perfection, or do you prefer to record each piece in a single take?
DBP: I love recording above anything else and I love editing my own recordings. I have to start with a very clear idea of what I want to achieve which normally entails a framework within which I play as spontaneously as possible. I record many possibilities within that set of clearly defined parameters and ‘harnessing points’, and decide later how I would like to use them, after listening to how things come across on tape. It is therefore incredibly important to me to edit my own recordings! Few people realise just what a difference the choice of takes, and the exact point where an edit is made, can effect. A lot of recordings end up almost as much the artistic work of the producers and editors as of the players! Editing my own work means my recordings are entirely composed of my own musical decisions. As far as long takes and short takes are concerned, I do both depending on what’s required and depending on the conditions under which I work on a particular day. It all depends on what is more likely to yield the kind of result one is after.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A lost generation - and some that need finding

As the commemorations of the World War I centenary begin, music is very much part of the equation. Radio 3 is starting a new series entitled Music on the Brink on 5 January, looking at the music of five crucial cities at the time of the war's outbreak. 

This article appeared in short form in the Independent a week or two ago, but what follows here is my longer original: an introduction to the effect of the "Great War" on the composers who had to participate in it, those who lived and those who died. Some are household names, but others can benefit from the chance of rediscovery that this year may bring.

We already had FS Kelly's deeply moving Elegy for Strings for Remembrance Day, so to start let's hear Jelly d'Aranyi (violin) and Ethel Hobday (piano) playing his Serenade Op.7.

The composer and poet Ivor Gurney once wrote: “Despairing work is the noblest refuge among other despairs”. During commemorations for the centenary of World War I this year, Gurney’s music will be much to the fore, together with that of a generation of composers who, if they survived, found themselves indelibly scarred by their wartime experiences. Their responses were extraordinarily varied. Far from being a catalogue of gloom, their works reflect everything from mourning to pacifism, from iconoclasm to wry humour and escapism. 
Gurney’s history is as emblematic as it is tragic, and his songs as beautiful as his poetry. Always prone to depression, he had suffered a breakdown while still a student; but after serving in the war, in which he suffered a shoulder wound in 1917 and gassing only months afterwards, he was diagnosed with “deferred shell-shock”. He spent his later years in and out of mental institutions. Later this year there'll be a Radio 3 Composer of the Week series devoted to his compositions.

Among the most familiar of his contemporaries is Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was 41 on the outbreak of war, but served first as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, later as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He weathered considerable horrors with greater than average strength, though later suffered deafness thought to have been caused by noise damage from gunfire. His Pastoral Symphony – light years from Beethoven’s – references not idealised country scenes, but the fields of northern France. It incubated, he recalled, “when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset.” A trumpet cadenza captures the sound he heard of a bugler practising yet hitting the wrong note.

Other survivors were less well adjusted. EJ Moeran was a case in point. He was 19 in 1914 and spent much of the war as a despatch rider until being wounded at Bullecourt in 1917. Not only his psyche but also the progress of his career was overturned; it was soon hampered further by mental instability and alcoholism. He was just beginning to achieve real recognition when the outbreak of World War II intervened. Fortunately his concertos for cello and for violin have recently been enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to new recordings respectively by the cellist Guy Johnston and violinist Tasmin Little. Here's the second movement of his Serenade:

Many composers were less fortunate still. George Butterworth died in the Battle of the Somme, aged 31. A friend of Vaughan Williams and fellow collector of folksongs, his most celebrated work is the song cycle A Shropshire Lad, exquisitely evocative settings of AE Housman, as well as an idyllic work for orchestra, The Banks of Green Willow

A less famed loss at the Somme was the Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly, who had survived Gallipoli and was also a rowing champion, having won a gold medal in the 1908 Olympic Games. Recently the director of the Canberra Festival, Christopher Latham, has unearthed a violin sonata that Kelly penned on the boat home from Gallipoli, intending it for the violinist Jelly d’Arányi – also a vital inspiration to Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Bartók – whom he was widely expected to marry. It is a relatively carefree-sounding piece – as if imagining its strains in the trenches had offered a means of mental escape. 

Many who did not see action found their attitudes to life and music transformed nonetheless. Frank Bridge espoused strong pacifist views; the impact of the war induced him to transform his hitherto romantic style into near-expressionism – for instance, in an uncompromising piano sonata dedicated to the memory of the composer Ernest Bristow Farrar, who was killed in action. Bridge’s student Benjamin Britten was later to echo his pacifist outlook; and Farrar’s young pupil Gerald Finzi was deeply affected by his mentor’s death, which contributed to shaping his distinctly dark view of life.

Across the Channel, Claude Debussy was dying of cancer; he did not live to see the conflict’s end. He came to view composition as an act of resistance and patriotism. “I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small...that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought," he declared. His last works are three instrumental sonatas that show not a hint of the turbulence around him, signed ‘Claude Debussy, musicien français’. 

Maurice Ravel became a driver of ambulances at Verdun. In his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin each movement is dedicated to a different fallen friend. He, though, resisted the drift towards nationalism: “It would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the works of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical art...would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas,” he wrote. But his La Valse is often seen as an unwitting evocation of the world of the Viennese waltz imploding in cataclysm.

This is the piano version, played by Yuja Wang at Verbier:

The composers of Vienna itself responded to the war in manners ranging from the personal to the outright political. Franz Lehár, that supreme composer of operetta, produced a tone poem for tenor and orchestra entitled Fever, portraying the memories of a soldier in shell-shock. At the other extreme, the youthful Erich Wolfgang Korngold became musical director of a regiment, for which he composed a military march. When his commanding officer complained that it was too fast, he quipped: “This is for the retreat.” 

For Arnold Schoenberg, who undertook military service aged 42, the war symbolised – at first – an attack on the reactionary musical world, especially that of France: “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God,” he wrote in 1914. But German musical losses were intense, too: just one example was the immensely gifted Rudi Stephan, whose opera Die ersten Menschen was only premiered five years after his death on the Galician front. 

While surviving composers processed their experiences through their art in many different ways, an overarching result became clear. The war had produced such trauma and disillusionment that the only way forward was to sweep away the past and find a new, sometimes revolutionary approach for the future. The scene was set for a fresh century of music, rising from the ashes of the old one.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


Happy New Year from JDCMB here in London.

In 2014 this blog marks its 10th anniversary. On 4 March 2004 I set out to investigate what these new-fangled things called blogs were and found, five minutes later, that I had one; and decided, two minutes after that, that I'd use it and see what happened. So here we are.

Ten years on, most things of real value seem to be in a state of slow-motion collapse. My wish for today is that 2014 will be the year we find exciting and positive ways to reconfigure them. We're still here, and it's up to us.

A few points for readers new to JDCMB:


ABOUT ME: I am a writer with a musical slant, based in London, UK. I contribute music journalism to publications including The Independent, BBC Music Magazine, Opera News and others. I've written a bunch of novels, biographies of Fauré and Korngold, some plays, and words for musical setting, and I write and perform scripts for narrated words&music concerts. I give pre-concert talks and sometimes do things on Radio 3. I play the piano and I still love music.

ABOUT THIS BLOG: JDCMB is a celebration of music and words, aiming to inform and entertain. Occasional tubs are thumped, but I don't do rabble rousing and I sometimes try to puncture some of the inflated idiocy around us.

We like: genuine artistry, enthusiasm, humour, music education for all, historical recordings and the bolstering of the soul; and we enjoy going off the wall from time to time (eg the annual Ginger Stripe Awards, presented by Solti, my ginger cat). We don't like: commercialism, populism, sexism, racism, bullying, cruelty or carnage.

The gluten-free reference in the sub-head has a double-meaning. I've had to go GF since a patch of vicious stress relating to a dalek invasion stymied my digestive system; and eliminating avoidable stress has meant getting rid of the comments boxes. As for the sugar and spice, we would like to invent a sarcasm font and one for irony, too.

You can follow this blog via email - please sign up in the sidebar box (I don't see the email addresses, btw - it's all automated). I usually post links on Facebook and Twitter. If you need to write to me, please use my public Facebook page. Please don't send me unsolicited CDs, as I can't promise to review them. If you wish to buy an advert, you are welcome to do so, whether as a display ad or in the Solti Sponsorship Scheme.

Here's to a great year of music ahead!