Friday, March 16, 2018

The age of age?

A century and still running? Several things have happened in the last few weeks that seem to add up to more than the sum of their random parts. These are they:

Debussy in 1908
1. The centenary of Debussy's death has sparked so many recordings, concerts, etc, that it looks as if he's more popular than I thought. Debussy is wonderful, amazing, original, seminal, groundbreaking, crucial, one of the all-time geniuses, etc, yet I've never thought of him as either a special audience draw, like Mozart, or a media-friendly dead-celebrity type, like Stravinsky (who pinched lavishly from him). But the CD releases have been hitting my desk at the rate of several a week, a nice big new book has already emerged, and it's still only the middle of March. What conclusion to draw? Debussy is super-duper-popularoony after all? Or: take a centenary, any centenary, jump aboard and expect to watch sales soar? Forgive me if I sound cynical, but this is 100 years, and 100 years is, nowadays, in living memory.

2. At the Institut Français discussion on Equality and Conductors last week, the French conductor Claire Gibault remarked that she thought the next big equality to tackle would be that of age. In a time in which everyone is hungry for the next bright young star to come along, older artists - well known or 'emerging' - can find themselves having a hard time, passed over despite having much to offer in terms of experience and wisdom. I have come across individuals (whether in person or sounding fed up on Twitter) attempting to pursue musical paths in later life, finding everything skewed against them. We forget sometimes that people develop at their own paces, and not always by choice: if you peak at 16 you may be forgotten by 56, or if your life gets in the way early on, your artistry may be waiting for a chance to shine through later. By the time you start to make the lemonade out of the lemons life has given you, other people may assume mistakenly that you are too old to know how much sugar to put in, adding insult to injury... We recommend they taste the lemonade before deciding.

3. Today there breaks news that the actress Olivia de Havilland, aged 101, is suing the makers of the TV series Feud, about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, for misrepresenting her. More here. De Havilland is the last surviving star of the 1930s golden age of Hollywood (and was, indeed, leading lady in a number of Korngold movies - apparently the composer rather took her under his wing when she appeared, very, very young, in Max Reinhardt's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream). She is quite right to speak up. Why should she not, just because she is 101? She is quoted as saying: "I feel strongly about it because when one person’s rights can be trampled on this way, the rights of others who are more vulnerable can be abused as well." What a heroine.

4. The pianist Marjan Kiepura has got in touch with news that it is now possible to listen to recordings by his mother, the legendary soprano Marta Eggerth (1912-2013), on Youtube, in a release of 43 numbers entitled My Life, My Song (it's also available on CD). These recordings were made as early as 1936 and as recently as 2002 when the Hungarian-born operetta star was 90. In some, Eggerth and her husband Jan Kiepura (Korngold's original tenor in Das Wunder der Heliane) sing together, in the mid 1950s. In others, Marjan accompanies his mother in beautifully paced Chopin songs. The voice changes, of course, but to hear Eggerth across some 70 years is to hear beyond the surface sound and delve into the underlying artistry that is conveyed by that sound through the decades. Here are some samples:

What is the linking factor in all these events? It's not just age - it's our attitude to it. Really we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, especially as we have these days an ageing population. Think about this a moment: our composers are producing music at three times Schubert's final age, or more. Elliott Carter was still composing at 100, Dutilleux into his nineties, Birtwistle and Gubaidulina are still going strong in their eighties. I'm not going to list the conductors or soloists, but you don't have to look far to find them. But isn't it strange that we celebrate the anniversaries later, rather than appreciating these individuals strongly enough when they're still with us?

Here's Mieczyslaw Horszowski in 1986, in his 90s, playing the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. I remember hearing him play it that year at Aldeburgh and have never forgotten how bowled over I was as it emerged almost as a mystical holy trinity, a three-in-one creation of utterly luminous intensity. 

It's wonderful that Debussy's anniversary is big-time. It's great that we're celebrating Bernstein's centenary so lavishly this year. But Bernstein is dead. What about the venerable artists who are still alive? Shouldn't we celebrate them while they're here? And why wait until they're 100? How much fine musicianship, creativity, insight, empathy and excellence are we missing out on if we judge people by their birthdays? 

Above all, Marta Eggerth's singing is proof, if it were needed, that though the body may age inevitably, the soul only ages if we let it, and we don't have to.

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