Showing posts with label Kenneth Woods. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kenneth Woods. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The strange tale of the Schumann concerto, tomorrow

Very excited to be heading tomorrow to Great Malvern to do a pre-concert talk about the Schumann Violin Concerto with conductor Ken Woods – whose concert with the English Symphony Orchestra includes this haunting work as centrepiece, with soloist Zoe Beyers. We are at Great Malvern Priory, talk at 6.30pm, concert at 7.30pm. Booking here.

Incidentally, I will also be presenting a concert themed around Jelly d'Arányi, World War I and World War II for the Oxford Philharmonic on 1 June, including the concerto alongside music by Bartók and FS Kelly.

As a preview, here is an article I wrote for the Independent in 2016 about the extraordinary history of this long-forgotten work, its traumatic composition when Schumann was on the cusp of mental illness and its bizarre rediscovery in the 1930s when the world itself was tipping over into madness... 



Robert Schumann
Photo from Wikimedia

When I first heard the story of how Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto came to light in the 1930s, I nearly fell off my chair. 
This extraordinary piece, the composer’s last orchestral work, has had a chequered existence. After one airing by its intended soloist, Joseph Joachim, it languished in obscurity for nearly eight decades. Then in 1933 Joachim’s great-niece, the Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Arányi (one-time muse to Bartók, Ravel and even Elgar) claimed to have received spirit messages via a Ouija board begging her to find and perform it. 
So bizarre was her quest – extending to the highest echelons of the Third Reich’s administration – that I’ve turned it into a novel, entitled Ghost Variations
The reality is admittedly stranger than fiction. After Schumann’s death, his widow, Clara, put the concerto aside, fearing it might betray its composer’s increasingly unstable state of mind. Always prone to extreme highs and lows, Schumann may have been bipolar, or suffered from tertiary syphilis, or possibly both; academics remain divided on the nature of his malady, though most incline towards the syphilis explanation. In February 1854 he suffered a devastating breakdown and tried to drown himself in the Rhine. Having survived, he requested to go into a mental hospital. He spent his final two years in an asylum in Endenich, Bonn, and died there in July 1856. 
Thereafter, it was up to Clara to decide which of her husband’s unpublished works should see the light of day. In consultation with her two right-hand men, Johannes Brahms and Joachim, she took time to make up her mind about the concerto. Finally she elected not to issue it. Joachim’s heirs deposited the manuscript in the Prussian State Library, placing what was thought to be a 100-year embargo on the work. Schumann’s daughter, Eugenie, insisted that in fact her mother wished it never to be played.
Jelly d’Arányi was 14 when her great-uncle Joachim died. Her elder sister, Adila Fachiri, likewise a celebrated violinist, had been Joachim’s pupil in Berlin. Fachiri was, as it turned out, a psychic “sensitive”, able to receive at considerable speed and intensity detailed “messages” in the then-fashionable Glass Game (ie, a home-made Ouija board). 
Although d’Arányi herself claimed to have received the initial message, she rarely participated in such sessions. It was largely Fachiri and her friend Baron Erik Palmstierna, the Swedish Minister in London, who drove the search thereafter; Palmstierna himself unearthed the manuscript in Berlin; and his book Horizons of Immortality, based on “messages” interpreted by Fachiri, broke the news of the concerto’s revelation upon an incredulous and cynical public in September 1937.
Others, though, also had a vested interest in reviving the piece. Once the concerto was found, its publisher-to-be, Schott, sent a copy to the young superstar violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who longed to give its modern premiere as his comeback after a year’s sabbatical. Meanwhile, the Nazi administration was alerted by the enquiries from England to the fact that something interesting was sitting in the Prussian State Library. Having investigated for themselves, they elected to override any alleged embargoes, as well as d’Arányi’s claim to priority. Germany’s most popular violin concerto, the one by the Jewish-born Mendelssohn, had been banned; Goebbels wished to promote Schumann’s suppressed work as a great German violin concerto by a great German composer – performed by a German soloist, Georg Kulenkampff. Menuhin, in the US, was relegated to second place and d’Arányi, in London, to third. She finally gave the UK premiere in February 1938. 
There was little chance, though, that the Nazis would persuade the public to love this concerto as much as they did Mendelssohn’s. To some – including the violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose new recording of the work is out next week – the work can represent a testimony to a mind tragically dislocated from reality. And even if you don’t feel it necessarily betrays signs of incipient insanity to such an extreme degree, it is certainly complex, formally intriguing, filled with struggle, difficult to pace in performance.
Either way, it contains much wonderful music. Its slow movement is heartbreakingly beautiful – sharing a shred of melody with Schumann’s last piano work, written soon afterwards, entitled Geistervariationen (Ghost Variations). Schumann believed that the theme for the piano piece had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers beyond the grave – forgetting that he had already written it himself.
Today the Schumann Violin Concerto is finally rising to prominence. Given chances to shine in the hands of today’s leading soloists, it proves that its genuine soul, passion and intensity can ride high, despite its composer’s tragic fate. And even if Jelly d’Arányi did not quite give its first 20th-century performance, her effort on its behalf saved it from oblivion. Thanks to her, we can appreciate and assess it for ourselves.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

What a Gál!

How great it is that Hans Gál is Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3. He is one of music's most genuine undersung heroes and last year it was wonderful that so many people helped to crowdfund conductor Ken Woods' latest recording in his series of Gál's works with the Orchestra of the Swan. You can listen to the programmes online and for seven days after broadcast here.

Here is an article of mine about him that I think fell down a crack between some editorial floorboards a couple of years ago. Plus a video in which Ken talks about Gál's life and work and we hear a sample of the latter. Enjoy.





Someday an alternative survey of 20th-century music should take a thorough look at the myriad composers who were reviled, then exiled, for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time, or for writing the ‘wrong kind’ of music, and often for both. When that happens, Hans Gál’s star will shine bright.

The Austro-Hungarian composer and scholar was born in 1890 and grew up in Vienna; later he and his family were forced to flee first Nazi Germany, then Austria, for Britain. He wrote prolifically, clocking up more than 100 works, and he lived to be 97. Yet for decades even his finest music lay unrecognised and unplayed.

But in the last year or two, a series of recordings spearheaded by the Hans Gál Society and the composer’s daughter, Eva Fox-Gál, has been bringing him back at last to the public notice he deserves.

Gál effectively suffered a threefold misfortune. He believed himself part of the great German tradition of music-making; then the Nazis decided he was not. After escaping to Britain, he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man, and his music was sidelined for sounding too German. Earning his living by teaching at Edinburgh University, he continued to write symphonies in the tradition of Haydn and Beethoven as recently as the 1970s – but by then, the musical elite tended to react vituperatively to new music that did not toe the line of accepted contemporary style.

Kenneth Woods is the conductor for several of the new recordings – the latest is Gál’s Symphony No.4 (on Avie Records). When he first realised Gál had written so much music, he says, he was astonished. Though familiar with Gál’s performing edition of Brahms’s symphonies and his superb books on Brahms and Schubert, Woods had had no idea that the academic was primarily a composer. Many of his finest works, such as the early Violin Concerto, had gone unperformed for 70 years.

“It’s tremendous stuff,” says Woods. “It’s the opposite of what people thought they had to conform to at the time; Gál just kept on writing in his own style.

“The standard of his works is uniformly high. To my mind, the closest comparison between Gál and another composer would be Haydn: the surface beauty of the music is there, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What’s vital is the subtlety of what goes on beneath. And because the language is so classical, the writing is very ‘exposed’, making his music tremendously difficult to play.”

Eva Fox-Gál (who was born in Britain in 1944) has made it her mission to champion her father’s works; and her son, Simon Fox-Gál, is the sound engineer on the Avie recordings. “My father was genial, well known for his wit, modest, good fun to be with, and never pushed himself or his own work forward,” Eva remembers. “But that was his outer shell. To know what he was like inside, one needs to listen to his music.

“His writings about other composers are also very revealing about himself. At the beginning of his book on Schubert, he talks about Schubert’s outer persona and how the composer’s contemporaries mistook that for the real person. My father thought that that was what Schubert needed, in order to safeguard his inner core for his work. It’s his defence. I think that was what my father also had to do.”

One of Gál’s most successful works, in the 1920s, was his opera Die heilige Ente (The Sacred Duck), which stayed in theatrical schedules constantly from its premiere in 1923 until it
was banned by the Nazi regime, along with all works by Jewish composers. Gál was appointed director of the Music Conservatory in Mainz in 1929, but the Nazis had him thrown out in 1933.
He and his family returned to Vienna, which they escaped at the time of the Anschluss in 1938. After a false dawn in Britain – in which Gál was much assisted by the great musicologist Donald Francis Tovey, who brought him to Edinburgh University to catalogue the music library – the composer was interned on the Isle of Man.

This was one of the most difficult times of all, says Eva: “That collection of refugees really represented Hitler’s greatest enemies, yet they were seen as a danger. The idea that they were a ‘fifth column’ that put the country under threat was completely ridiculous. There was no understanding of who they were, or of the horrors that they had already been through.” The ever-increasing stress proved intolerable for the Gáls’ younger son, who took his own life before the war was over.

Michael Haas, a distinguished record producer and music curator of the Jewish Museum in Vienna, is among Gál’s most passionate advocates. He describes Gál as an ‘anti-Romantic’: a composer who was convinced neither by the effusive styles of Liszt and Wagner, nor by the mainstream trends of his own time such as atonality, 12-tone ‘serialism’ and the neo-classicism of Stravinsky and Poulenc.
“His antidote to Romantic excesses was to reach back to earlier models,” Haas suggests. “Most people assume the model was Brahms, but I believe that actually it was Mendelssohn. This accounts for his frequent lack of overt emotional abandonment.

“For me, Gál is the ‘Everyman Composer’ of the Weimar years. He was conventional, but not banal. He was far more representative of what musical life was actually like than, say, Alban Berg or Darius Milhaud. It would be like comparing Norman Rockwell with Andy Warhol. I love some of his more expressive works and admire his aesthetic composure and his extraordinary intelligence and cultivation.”

The rehabilitation of Gál’s music is long overdue – but better late than never. “Because the music is so difficult to play,” says Woods, “even when occasional performances were given, sometimes they didn’t make a strong enough case for it. But now, working with great musicians who are hungry to perform it, we hope these recordings will give people a chance to hear what wonderful stuff it is.”


Thursday, August 15, 2013

5 days left to help a musical hero




UPDATE, TUESDAY 20 AUG, 9.45am: THEY DID IT! THEY'VE MADE TARGET! A huge thank-you to all the doughty JDCMB readers who contributed both financially and by helping to spread the word.

The Orchestra of the Swan and conductor Kenneth Woods have over recent years set about recording four volumes of Hans Gál's symphonies, paired with Schumann's. The performances are terrific, with huge spirit and passion, and have been heartily well reviewed around the place. But while we were on holiday, conductor and orchestra launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £8,500 that they need to complete the cycle. So far, they have amassed slightly over a quarter of it. They have just five days to find the rest. Please visit their Indigogo page and help them! http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gal-schumann-symphonies/

Hans Gál is one of music's most scandalously undersung, underplayed, under-recognised good guys. I first saw his name as a child, as my dad had his admirable books on Schubert and Brahms - yet scarcely heard a note of his music until Leon McCawley recorded the piano works about ten years ago. Gál was a 20th-century individualist, working in a tonal idiom with a delightful quirkiness of soul that is often compared - with good reason - to that of Haydn.

He was enormously respected in Europe before the Second World War, but, being Jewish, was forced to flee with his young family, going first in 1933 from Mainz back to his native Vienna and later managing to move to the UK with the help of his friend Donald Francis Tovey, then professor of music at Edinburgh University; Tovey enlisted him to help catalogue the institution's new music library. Eventually Gál became professor at Edinburgh himself and lived in the city for the rest of his life.

More details about Gál, the project and what you get in return for becoming a donor, here.