Showing posts with label Korngold. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Korngold. Show all posts

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In which all paths lead to Beethoven 7

I've been reading an interesting book, which I'm reviewing for BBC Music Magazine. It's Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide, by the American academic John J Sheinbaum. Among many things it does is to articulate a shake-up in the deep-seated ways we tend to think about the music we listen to. Is the idea of "greatness" all-encompassing in our musical judgments? If so, why? Does it have to be? Do we listen to music because it is empirically "great" in some way - or because we think it is because others have judged it to be? And not to other things because they are...not? It's a chewy, academic read, but deep within the texts and analyses are some intriguing ideas and a good few home truths. It's got me thinking...

Good Music


Good Music

320 pages | 2 halftones, 25 musical examples, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Over the past two centuries Western culture has largely valorized a particular kind of “good” music—highly serious, wondrously deep, stylistically authentic, heroically created, and strikingly original—and, at the same time, has marginalized music that does not live up to those ideals.

In Good Music, John J. Sheinbaum explores these traditional models for valuing music. By engaging examples such as Handel oratorios, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, jazz improvisations, Bruce Springsteen, and prog rock, he argues that metaphors of perfection do justice to neither the perceived strengths nor the assumed weaknesses of the music in question. Instead, he proposes an alternative model of appreciation where abstract notions of virtue need not dictate our understanding. Good music can, with pride, be playful rather than serious, diverse rather than unified, engaging to both body and mind, in dialogue with manifold styles and genres, and collaborative to the core. We can widen the scope of what music we value and reconsider the conventional rituals surrounding it, while retaining the joys of making music, listening closely, and caring passionately.

The same could be said of how we listen to performers. Is hero-worship the only way forward? What about collaboration? Do we have to listen to a performer only because he or she is "the best"? Is the whole idea of "greatness" a hangover from 19th-century thought processes in which the god-given gift was a cause for marvel and we had, post-Liszt, to sit in worshipful attendance?

It's good to question things. It's great. It's essential. We should never simply accept a status quo because it's a status quo - it's only by probing interrogation that we can work out what the heck is going on inside our own heads, as well as in the world around us. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can make some progress.

My starting point today, though, is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, because it's my personal nomination for Greatest Symphony Ever. I adore its every note. And it's thought, by most and sundry, to be great...

There's a paradox to solve, meanwhile. On the one hand, if greatness is not a criterion for listening to someone or something, how do we decide what to hear? We could eliminate all the artists who indulge in individual behaviour we disapprove of. We might look, for example, for dead composers who lived a blameless life, maintaining in the 18th or 19th centuries all the standards we expect in the 21st - no extra-marital affairs, no lying or cheating, donating half your income to charity, adopting as many stray dogs as you can fit into your home, no holidays (or just non-extravagant camping), being a wonderful mum or dad or wanting to be one, supporting mild, centrishly-progressive politics, standing up heroically to extremism and enduring great torment for the sake of the Truth. Er, you get the idea. We would have very, very quiet concert halls. Though actually, we might hear some Beethoven, who had high principles and massive struggles and if he didn't always get things right, it was not for want of trying. We'd hear a lot of... his Symphony No.7 in particular because it has no political connotations and isn't programmatic and always resists any and all attempts to make it hackneyed, because it's an absolutely great piece.

That method is not much of a solution. We'd be very bored very quickly. What about performers? Here it's already not always "greatness" that determines who is heard the most, or applauded the most. Other matters often decide who gets the concerts (but let's not go there just now). If it's up to us to choose, we might pick others to listen to, for other reasons. Some of my favourite memories of piano recitals involve intimate performances of really interesting repertoire by performers known to a niche public, but little further - an all-Fauré recital by the marvellous Grant Johannesen at St John's Smith Square springs to mind, for example. I'd say that was 'great' playing. So it is about greatness, but not always greatness in the widely assumed forms.

But there's no doubt about it when you do hear a really great performance. I heard one last week - Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in its chamber form, with the Doric Quartet - reviewed in The Arts Desk. And certain orchestral concerts have stayed with me for decades: Solti's Mahler 5, for instance, back in the late 1980s (mind-blowing to my student self), or Rattle conducting Debussy's La mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. And Andris Nelsons in Birmingham conducting...Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

Sir Georg Solti - mind-blowing Mahler
Once you've heard such a performance, it sets the bar high. Most of us want to seek out "great" performances because of how we find ourselves responding to them. They set our blood afire, our pulse racing, our imagination spinning, our emotions atingle, and they leave us glad to be alive and thrilled that we could experience this. And if, having experienced that, you then hear something that doesn't do it, you might leave thinking "why bother?".

Do we have to apply the "why bother" scenario to repertoire too? If we did, it would be...boring. Wouldn't it? Some pieces of music I've heard so often that I literally don't mind if I don't encounter them again for 20 years (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony tops the list, even though I adore Tchaikovsky). The notion that "greatness is everything" seems to have struck out, for far too long, composers of a second or even third rank who wrote music that is interesting, moving, worthwhile, but just not quite as good as ...Beethoven 7. Korngold's Violin Concerto wasn't performed in the UK until about 1984 and it's become a concert favourite not because it's as great as Beethoven 7 (not even I would suggest that), but because it is nevertheless beautiful and fun, violinists love playing it and audiences enjoy listening to it. Plain old enjoyment has a place.

Speaking of enjoyment, just have a look at, and listen to, what Kirill Petrenko can do with...Beethoven 7 at the great Berlin Philharmonic.

Back to Korngold for a moment. We had to be familiar with that concerto before it could catch on, not to mention dealing with the Hollywood stereotyping that worked against it for so many years. Familiarity has a huge place in what we think we know, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical - and sadly, so does prejudice ("film music is second rate", "ballet music is piffling", "Mendelssohn is too glib", etc), though few like to admit this.

Moreover, take our friend Mikolajus Čiurlionis. I went to Birmingham last Saturday to hear Mirga conduct The Sea (I haven't reviewed it because the artist Norman Perryman is a very old friend and I have one of his paintings; indeed, the background image on this blog is his doing). But I can't help noticing that apparently part of the puzzled reactions that have drifted around in that concert's wake was the unfamiliarity of this tone poem. Most people there had never heard it before. OK, so it was the UK premiere.

This Čiurlionis piece is not difficult listening, though. It's much of its time: there's a pantheistic, nature-worship side to it, a hint of Strauss in Alpine Symphony mode, a nod towards Scriabinesque grandiloquence, a whisper of Debussy, whose La mer might easily spring to mind. It's one long movement, about 35 minutes, beautifully coloured with clear, ambery orchestration, and it leaves you stirred, rather than shaken. Yet it wasn't wholly unfamiliar to me by the time I hopped on the train to Symphony Hall, because there are at least three versions of it available to listen to freely on Youtube and I'd availed myself of this. It's not impossible that that was why I didn't feel I had to concentrate on every bar, wondering what was coming next and whether or not it was a "great" piece, but instead I could simply enjoy the organic whole made by the music and painting together. I'm fond of ballet, as you know, and this is not so different. If you can watch dancing while enjoying the music, why not painting? The supposedly different mediums create one whole, a gesamtkunstwerk. So really, the notion that you can't concentrate on two things at once doesn't hold all that much sea-water.

And if it's not "great music", so what? It's a window into another corner of the musical world, a voice that is strong and pleasing. It's enjoyable, different and memorable, it broadens our experience and it makes us think. Is that not something worthwhile? Or does it have to be ...Beethoven 7 every single time? Look, you might not want to marry someone, but you can enjoy a conversation with him or her over a coffee, and even if you decide he's not your ideal date and you leave it there, you might hear something, learn something, have a laugh together. Social life would be pretty dull if you never just went for a cuppa with an occasional pal.

by Čiurlionis
The Virtual Reality exhibit in the foyer, incidentally, took things further still. It was essentially an animation of Čiurlionis's own paintings. It was tucked away in the foyer bar and it took me a while to find it, but then I had a go on it and it was gorgeous. You're absorbed into a magical world, a little bit like Nicholas Roerich's paintings, if more evanescent, even ineffable. Roerich, a mystical philosopher as well as artist, was the designer of the original Rite of Spring for Diaghilev and worked on the scenario with (or possibly for) Stravinsky, and I think he and Čiurlionis had much in common - or would have had if the unfortunate Čiurlionis had lived beyond the age of 35. Coming back to the reality of central Birmingham on a Saturday night (don't even ask) from being surrounded by fields of flowers and a boat ride along a glowing shore is a bit of a jolt. I hope this beautiful creation might be more widely available to view soon.

The natural end point of rejecting a piece of music because it's not 100% perfect is that you end up playing "Mornington Crescent" (the spoof game in the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) with Beethoven 7. It goes like this. The Sea is not Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Why do The Sea when you can do the Alpine Symphony? But then, the Alpine Symphony is not regarded by some as a "great" work, but as an OK one by a composer who arguably did better with other pieces. Why do the Alpine Symphony when you can do Ein Heldenleben...yet again? But why do Strauss, then, when you can do Beethoven, who was greater than Strauss, the greatest of them all? Why do Ein Heldenleben when you can do...Beethoven 7?

The London Underground. Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black line) just north of the city centre.

Yes, all roads lead to Beethoven 7. And I love Beethoven 7 and I do think it's probably the best symphony ever composed. But I also have soft spots for about 3000 other pieces and would welcome, for instance, the chance to hear contemporary works like John Adams's Harmonielehre more often, let alone an occasional work by César Franck, André Messager or Lowell Liebermann - for any of which, guess where you mostly have to go? The ballet. (This season the Royal Ballet is doing both The Two Pigeons and Frankenstein, so you can hear Messager and Liebermann within a few weeks of each other.)

If you prefer to end every journey at Mornington Crescent, then by all means do - but now and then it really doesn't hurt to get off the train at Kennington instead and explore south of the river. If we only listened to the familiar and the "great", then we'd never hear anything we hadn't heard it before - and without new music, or indeed music that is new to us, the art form would just dry up and die. That Mornington Crescent lark could be fatal.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Welcome to Kaufmann Central!

He's back. Presented the other day with the Special 'Victoires de la mystique classique' Award in France, Jonas Kaufmann sang Rota's 'Parla più piano' (aka The Godfather) at the ceremony. This was it.

Now is the winter when my discount tent is pitched on the concrete outside the Barbican Centre. In these grim times we need something to look forward to, and if you happen to be a "Kaufmaniac" the ultimate thing to look forward to is about to happen, right here in sunny London.

Jonas Kaufmann is presented with the Special 'Victories de la musique classique' award in Paris. Photo: Edouard Brane

'Der Jonas' is coming to town for The Kaufmann Residency at the Barbican Centre. Between tomorrow (4 Feb) and Monday week (13th) he is giving three concerts and an open interview. Some of his fans here have been nail-biting a little over the past months while he has been off, recovering from what was apparently a hematoma on a vocal cord. The pessimists among us wondered if the residency would actually go ahead.

The other week, though, Kaufmann made a triumphant return to the stage in Paris as Lohengrin, and there's no sign of fading ambition. A new recording is coming out shortly (UK release in April), in which he sings the whole of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. And in case you haven't heard, news is out that a concert performance of Tristan Act II is planned for New York in April 2018. One hopes that may indicate the ultimate Wagner tenor role sidling gently into the repertoire...

He gave an interview to Paris Match talking about his return to the stage, saying that everything is going rather well.

Vous dites avoir eu encore des soucis de santé. Comment allez-vous ?
Je vais très bien maintenant, ma voix aussi. On a déjà fait des répétitions, tout est impeccable, grâce au temps de repos imposé. Mais ça a été un moment difficile à passer pour moi, d’autant que je ne suis pas quelqu’un de très patient. J’aime vraiment agir, prendre tout en main. Et j’étais là à attendre, sans avoir la possibilité d’accélérer les choses. Personne ne pouvait me dire si ça durerait deux semaines, un mois, deux mois… En quatre mois, l’hématome s’est résorbé. Tout est redevenu normal, les conditions sont donc idéales. Ce n’était pas mon premier choix de recommencer avec “Lohengrin”, même si j’ai déjà tenu le rôle plusieurs fois. Je connais cette production que j’aime beaucoup. Avec cette orchestration de Philippe [Jordan], j’étais sûr qu’il n’y aurait pas de risque. Donc, je suis très content.

Anyway, back to London. Here's what's happening. Everything is sold out, but do try for returns.

4 Feb: Recital with pianist Helmut Deutsch

Schumann Kerner Lieder, Op 35
‘L´invitation au voyage’ 
‘Le manoir de Rosemonde’ 
‘Chanson triste’ 
‘La vie antérieure’
Britten Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op 22

8 Feb: Wagner

Wagner Prelude to Tristan und Isolde
Act I from Die WalküreJonas Kaufmann tenor
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Antonio Pappano 
Karita Mattila soprano
Eric Halfvarson bass

10 Feb, 2pm, Milton Court: In Conversation

Jonas Kaufmann in conversation with young singers at Milton Court. 

Jonas Kaufmann talks to and works with aspiring singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama: an unprecedented chance to witness a master-musician discussing the practicalities and fundamentals of his craft in the informal atmosphere of Milton Court.

13 Feb: Strauss, Elgar, Korngold

The Four Last Songs. Yes, they're originally for soprano. Yes, that's just fine. And yes, the programme opens with Korngold's Schuaspiel Overture, which I have never before heard live and certainly not in London, and this requires its own pre-breakfast celebratory somersault.

Korngold Schauspiel OvertureStrauss Symphonic Interlude from Intermezzo, Träumerei am Kamin
‘Ruhe meine Seele’
‘Freundliche Vision’ 
‘Heimliche Aufforderung’
Elgar In the SouthStrauss Four Last SongsJonas Kaufmann tenor
BBC Symphony Orchestra

I am intending to go to the whole lot. For the duration, JDCMB is becoming KAUFMANN CENTRAL. I'll be reviewing the performances, reporting on the conversation and keeping the Kaufmaniacs up to speed on how it's all going. Yes, it's escapism. Yes, I need that and so do a lot of us.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A symphony awakens

A number of you have written to me asking to read my talk about Korngold and his Symphony in F sharp, given the other day for the CBSO, so I'm posting it below. But don't forget that for the price of two large coffees you can still get my entire book on the composer, which took me three years to write amid some pretty serious life traumas in the mid 1990s.

Script for talk given at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 28 January 2015

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day and it is very fitting today to spend a little time exploring the life and music of a composer who escaped the Nazis, but not their long-term legacy.

The story of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s life and his works is not only one of the strangest histories of its type, but also one of the most emblematic of its time. His path took him from an astonishing start as a remarkable child prodigy composer – his talent dumbfounded Richard Strauss, Engelbert Humperdinck and Arthur Nikisch, among many more – to a career in Hollywood sparked by forced exile in the 1930s. There he became one of the founding fathers of film music as an art-form in its own right.

Though his legacy involves music of powerful appeal – a lavish late romanticism bearing the influence of Strauss, Mahler, Puccini, early Stravinsky and more – his attempts to rehabilitate his career in the concert hall after 1950 came to little. Korngold never saw any need to stop being himself: he had started out in the era of dying romanticism and burgeoning expressionism, and writing in a way that was not his natural idiom was anathema to him. “Don’t expect apples from an apricot tree,” he once remarked.

But such was the resistance in a musical world dominated by atonality and serialism to anything remotely associated with something as tawdry as the cinema that Korngold was cold-shouldered and critically reviled. This, tragically, was the fate of innumerable composers of that time, and not only those who found themselves able to make a living in film music: if they did not evolve according to the latest fashion or the latest party line to toe, they faced an uncertain and miserable future. From Sibelius, who sat in isolation in Finland failing to write more great symphonies, to Prokofiev, who made the mistake of going back to Soviet Russia, to Andrzej Panufnik, who escaped hideous Communist directives about musical style in Poland only to find himself facing a different type of cultural fascism in the west, this era skewed the fate of classical music and its most gifted creators to a degree that we are only just beginning to understand fully today.

For decades after Korngold’s death his music virtually vanished from the repertoire – with the occasional exception of his Violin Concerto, which won occasional champions among soloists. In the past 20 years or so, as his story has become better known and recordings of his music featured in the surge of interest in unjustly neglected music and especially that of 20th-century Jewish composers whose works were banned by the Nazis, he has started to win increasing recognition. Several key works have become part of the standard repertoire, including his opera Die tote Stadt and, increasingly, the Symphony in F Sharp – his most important orchestral work, which we hear tonight.

It’s interesting to see this upsurge of interest. Nicky Benedetti, who recorded the violin concerto on her CD The Silver Violin and sent Korngold soaring into the pop charts, told me that she thinks Korngold literally went viral. The support for that work has come largely from people who are simply itching to play it! Violinists adore it. It’s so easy these days to hear interesting music online that more and more young soloists, lacking the stylistic prejudices of the past, have come across it and want to play it. I’ve even been able to do a Radio 3 Building A Library on it, because there are now more than 20 recordings in existence. I hope that the same may be starting to happen for the Symphony, which you may remember was heard at the Proms last summer.

I started researching my biography of Korngold back in 1993. I was lucky to have heard of him at all. An American musicologist friend of mine had been scandalised when I said “Korngold? Who’s he?” and promptly played me the Pierrot Tanzlied from Die tote Stadt. I loved it so much that I ran out and bought the LPs of the whole opera, then cried all the way through, so amazed was I that such fabulous music was lying around unknown. I’ve always loved his music for its overwhelmingly generous and positive spirit, its melodic richness, its strength of personality and everything it represents about the lost world it sprang from. Ths music’s energy, sweetness, exuberance and greatness of heart does represent Korngold’s own personality; he loved his food and had a sweet tooth, and he was also an exceptionally generous man. In fact, during the Second World War when he was in America, he signed so many affidavits vouching support for fellow refugee immigrants from Europe that eventually the authorities stopped accepting his signature! I’m fascinated by his life story, which saw him bridge what you’d have thought would be a massive gulf between Mahler and Errol Flynn.

Back in 1993, you hardly ever heard his music. Those who remembered him did so almost solely for his role in the film world. There, his influence was simply towering. For example, you can hear it echoed very directly in the works of John Williams, including Star Wars, Jurassic Park and even Harry Potter. Elsewhere, though, he was deeply out of fashion. I was truly shocked by some of the patronising, sometimes cruel responses I received when I mentioned his name and even dared to praise his music. This still happens. When the London Philharmonic performed his biggest opera Das Wunder der Heliane on the 50th anniversary of his death a few years ago, one critic declared that the Nazis were right to ban it because it was "degenerate". Yes, actually condemning the work of an exile from the Nazis with Nazi terminology in the year 2007. 

Korngold was born in 1897, in Brno, now the Czech Republic. His family moved to Vienna when he was four years old, when his music critic father, Julius Korngold, was appointed to a position on the influential newspaper Die neue freie Presse, where his boss was the notoriously crotchety critic Eduard Hanslick. Julius modelled himself very much after Hanslick, and espoused similar, very conservative views. Brahms was a friend; Mahler was adulated; Strauss was criticised; the Second Viennese School was The Enemy.

When Hanslick died, Julius got his job, becoming the most powerful music critic in the city that was the centre of the musical world. Today concert reviews are lucky to get into a newspaper at all, certainly in this country, but a hundred years ago music was so significant a force in Viennese life that Julius’s reviews were often plastered across the front page and ran on into the second, third and sometimes the fourth pages too.

So he was not just any old critic. And the appositely named Erich Wolfgang was not just a talented child. He was one the most extraordinary composing prodigies who ever lived, certainly the best since Mendelssohn. Julius’s musical connections were valuable in securing a fine start for him: aged nine, Erich played to Mahler, who declared him a genius and advised Julius to send him to Zemlinsky for lessons.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s childhood works aren’t often very interesting and Mendelssohn was sixteen before he wrote his Octet. But Korngold was writing highly sophisticated full-length works by the time he was 12. The New York Times critic heard his Opus 1 Piano Trio and was outraged: he wrote, “If we had a little boy of twelve who preferred writing this sort of music to hearing a good folk tune or going out and playing in the park, we should consult a specialist”.

As little Korngold made the headlines, Julius’s opinionated stances won many enemies, and sometimes sparked scandals that rebounded against the unfortunate wunderkind. Some people accused the father of praising only those musicians who performed his son’s works. Others accused Julius of writing the pieces himself – to which Julius pithily retorted, “If I could write such music, I would not be a critic.” What was certain, though, was that Julius’s deeply conservative musical outlook largely formed Erich’s own artistic persona; he squashed as hard as he could all of Erich’s early inclinations towards the avant-garde and tried particularly hard to keep him away from Schoenberg and co.

Korngold spent the interwar years increasingly preoccupied with stage works. His most successful opera, Die tote Stadt, was begun during the first world war and captures much of the aching nostalgia and sorrow of the time. He followed that with an even more ambitious score, Das Wunder der Heliane, which is so demanding of its soloists and involves such as massive orchestra and has such a convoluted story that performances of it, I fear, will remain few and far between. But to earn a crust, having lost all his savings in the inflation that followed the first world war, Korngold took a job arranging and conducting operettas at the Theater an der Wien, and this was how he met the great theatre director Max Reinhardt, who became a great friend. When the Nazis came to power Reinhardt quickly left Germany for America and it was on his invitation that Korngold first went to Hollywood to arrange Mendelssohn’s music for a massive new film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As a craftsman he proved highly adaptable, and when Warner Brothers realised he was perfect for them and offered him an extremely generous contract, he proved he had an extraordinary instinct for the correlation of music, drama and timing. This enabled him to compose his film scores by improvising at the piano while a patient projectionist ran the finished film for him time and again, often overnight. For a few years he commuted between Vienna and California, but he was lucky enough to be in Hollywood scoring The Adventures of Robin Hood when Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938.

The relationship between Korngold’s film music and his concert works looks to us more complicated than it should. To Korngold himself, it was simple. “Music is music,” he said, “whether it is for the stage, rostrum or cinema. Form may change, the manner of writing may vary, but the composer needs to make no concessions whatever to what he conceives to be his own musical ideology.” So while critics carped that his concert works were full of film music, in fact the reverse was also true; and the whole picture was a delicious hotpot. Korngold kept notebooks in which he would scribble down musical ideas for future reference; therefore a theme that appears in film guise might have pre-existed many years earlier in a Vienna sketch intended for a concerto or symphonic piece. The composer soon twigged that when films disappeared from the cinema, so did his scores; his contract –unusually for Hollywood – allowed him to use his film music in other contexts, and - like Vivaldi and Handel long before him - he became an enthusiastic recycler.

The Symphony in F sharp first began to germinate in 1947, soon after the premiere by Jascha Heifetz of the Violin Concerto. After the war, also after the death of his father, Korngold decided to leave the film studio and attempt a comeback in the concert and opera world. He was 50 that year. “Fifty is old for a child prodigy,” he remarked; he felt had to make that move now or never. Besides, he was cheesed off with Hollywood and its cheesiness; his later scores were attached to films that were not good enough for the music he wrote them. He was famous for his dry wit, and when a journalist asked him why he was leaving, he responded: “When I first came to Hollywood, I could not understand the dialogue. Now I can.” He may have felt extra urgency because that spring, he had began to suffer heart problems.

For his health, he agreed to take a short holiday in Canada. The spectacular scenery seems to have inspired him into starting the symphony; work on it, however, had to be put off when he suffered a full blown heart attack that September.

Once he had recovered, he decided, first, to try and go back to Vienna for the first time since 1938. The experience was not happy. The destruction of the Vienna State Opera House, the fight to get back his house (which had been taken over by the Nazis after the Anschluss) and the death of Richard Strauss all moved him deeply and left him sensing the rapid passing of time and the almost unrecognisable nature of the postwar world. The long-delayed premiere in Vienna of his 1938 opera Die Kathrin was a flop with the critics. And generally he felt less than welcome: the words “Ah Korngold, you’re back,” were sometimes followed by, “When are you leaving?” Gradually it’s been emerging that many ex-Nazis went on to hold important positions in postwar administrations, not least in Vienna and its cultural echelons. If Korngold could find no foothold, this may be no coincidence.

Eventually in 1951 Korngold resigned himself to a return to the States. Back in his Toluca Lake home, he threw himself into writing the much-postponed symphony, completing it the following year and scoring it for an orchestra of much-expanded capacity, including a hefty percussion section involving piano, celesta and marimba.

Describing the work in the third person, he wrote: “The composer characterizes his new symphony as a work of pure, absolute music with no program whatsoever, in spite of his experience that many people – after the first hearing – read into the first movement the terror and horrors of the years 1933-1945, and into the Adagio the sorrows and suffering of the victims of that time.” Nevertheless, that has never stopped anyone from feeling that the sometimes funereal slow movement might be effectively a threnody for the victims of the Nazi era. The work’s dedication makes grateful reference to the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the USA at the time that Korngold had taken US citizenship.

Whether or not Korngold conceived it as a mourning for a lost world, the piece could hardly fail to be marked by his state of mind, which was of course deeply affected by everything he had been through and continued to go through.

The Symphony’s structure is the classic four-movement format with opening sonata form allegro, scherzo and trio, adagio and finale. Its somewhat unwieldy key of F sharp happens to have been Korngold’s personal favourite, but he does not specify whether it is F sharp major or F sharp minor – and the music in that respect is often ambiguous. This isn’t the first time Korngold went for such ambiguity – his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, written for Paul Wittgenstein as Ravel’s was, around 1925, was in C sharp, neither major nor minor.

While the work’s atmosphere seems to contain much of Korngold’s bitterness, much of the material has origins quite distant from this time. The main theme of the first movement –stated by the clarinet with terse accompaniment and featuring a distinctive rising seventh - turned out to have been conceived as early as 1919. If you listen to the opening, you can tell it’s not all that far from the Vienna of, for instance, Alban Berg.

The second subject is an old idea as well – it’s based on a melody he had written around the same time for a close friend whose home, a villa named ‘La Lirodou’, he had made the subject of a wordplay. In his prodigy days he invented a personal musical signature which he called "the motif of the cheerful heart". In the Symphony it is upside down, introducing this second subject on the flute.

After that comes the scherzo, fleet-footed and brimming over with colourful effects on percussion and horns. It is, however, in the Adagio that the spectre of Korngold’s film music appears in earnest: the heavy-hearted main theme, sounding within a cushion of string tone, is a vital theme in the film score The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, in which Bette Davis, as Queen Elizabeth I, must condemn her beloved Earl of Essex to execution. Further themes in the movement are based on ideas that appeared in two further scores, Captain Blood and Anthony Adverse. Korngold termed the movement’s end an ‘ecstatic Abgesang’ (farewell).

I’d like to show you a little of how Korngold transferred the same ideas between film and concert platform. There is a motif in is Essex’s March which Korngold adapts extensively as a leitmotif as the film goes along... [In Birmingham I played the audience an extract of the Essex March, but here, from Youtube, is the original trailer for the film, in vivid can hear the motif in question towards the end of it...]

When Essex is condemned to death, that theme acquires a new guise altogether. And it sounds very much like the start of our Symphony’s adagio, the heart of the whole work (you can hear it at the start of this post). 

It’s perhaps the most tragic music Korngold ever composed and critics who like Bruckner more than I do have compared it favourably to his great symphonic adagios; for example, the way the basic thematic material is very simple, yet the composer builds it up into something vastly bigger than the sum of its parts. In the final movement Korngold attempts to assert optimism and a bit of cyclic fun with themes from earlier in the work – but I can’t help feeling there’s a hollowness lurking behind the lot after he’s shown us the depths of his heart in the adagio.

Korngold’s optimism, his "cheerful heart" and his prodigious gifts brought him little joy later in life: the twin blows of exile and artistic rejection proved hard to withstand. He died in Hollywood, a very disappointed man, at the age of only 60, feeling – as his son told me – as if his child prodigy days had all happened to somebody else. 

Korngold wrote in 1952 to a German admirer that he thought “my new Symphony will prove to the World that monotony and ‘modernism’ at the cost of abandoning invention, form, expression, beauty, melody – in short, all things connected with the despised ‘romanticism’ – which after all has produced some not so negligible masterpieces! – will ultimately result in disaster for the art of music.”

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we must assess for ourselves whether or not he was right. In the meantime, the Symphony is gradually becoming, at long last, a force to be reckoned with on concert platforms around the world. I hope you love it as much as I do. Enjoy the concert and thank you for listening.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Next few days...

Tomorrow (24th) I am at the Richmondshire Subscription Concerts in North Yorkshire for a welcome reunion with Bradley Creswick (violin) and Margaret Fingerhut (piano) in Hungarian Dances, the Concert of the Novel. Do come along for Gypsy-style virtuoso thrills, gorgeous repertoire and a roller-coaster narrative from the book. Here's the link:

On Monday evening (26th) I'm doing a pre-concert talk at the Wigmore Hall at 6.15pm about MOZART. The Hagen Quartet are continuing their Mozart Odysseyand Monday's concert features the second three of his "Haydn" Quartets. Talking about Mozart quartets at the Wigmore is a kind of a scary thing to do, so please join us in the Bechstein Room and smile - it will help.

On Wednesday evening (28th) I'm in Birmingham to introduce Korngold's Symphony in F sharp at Symphony Hall. The CBSO will be playing it in the second half of the concert, conducted by that Korngold aficionado par excellence, Michael Seal.

Busy. Backson.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Jonas Kaufmann talks about...

...his lovely new disc.

I just want to add a few things. I love this stuff. It is very close to our hearts here at JDCMB, not least because some of these songs were associated with the Comedian Harmonists, that remarkable singing ensemble - pop group, indeed - who rose to fame in risqué 1920s Berlin, but were destroyed by the Third Reich since half the members were Jewish.

They all escaped the Nazi era, fortunately, but were scattered to the corners of the globe and never sang together again. One baritone with a gorgeously warm voice became a synagogue cantor. We stumbled across some reissued recordings ten or fifteen years ago and when we took them to my father-in-law - who was born in Berlin in 1921 and left forever in 1936, settling in Buxton - he still knew all the songs from memory and sang along, a faraway look in his eye...

There is also, as previously noted, some Korngold on this CD: the Lute Song from Die tote Stadt - but it's not on the trailer, so we'll just have to wait.

I'll leave you with this nice dose of Kaufmania as I am now off to meet some cats. This is not a euphemism.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


It was 10 years ago today that I thought I'd investigate these strange new things called blogs. All of a sudden, you could write something and press a button and a minute later a total stranger could be reading it on the other side of the world. For a writer this was a) mind-blowing, b) irresistible. I started mucking about with a site or two and next thing I knew, I had my own blog. I didn't know you could give blogs fancy titles so I just called it Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. And here we are.

Celebration? Well, there's a Hungarian Dances novel-concert this afternoon at 3pm at the gorgeous St Mary's Perivale, with me, David Le Page (violin) and Viv McLean (piano). Admission is free, though you can make a donation afterwards. There will be cake, and there's a pub over the road.

So, how have things changed in these first 10 years?

First of all, and most obviously, we are still here. Many are not. I've recently overhauled the blogroll and am surprised by the number of writers who've stopped blogging in the past couple of years. Perhaps novelty wears off; perhaps pressures of time encroach too much. I've often considered closing down this one, but have never quite been able to bring myself to do it. It's often a sort of mental limbering up at the start of the day, a way of getting brain into gear - even though you should never blog before your second cup of coffee - and it's cheaper than therapy. More importantly, there are few ways to keep certain values going in this scary world, but JDCMB is one. If you are a regular visitor, chances are that you know them. That's why I keep on keeping on.

When the Internet was becoming ubiquitous, its gatekeepers - and its users - made two enormous mistakes. One was to allow anonymity. The other was to make everything free.

Ten years on, many gifted individuals are struggling to make ends meet because of the second; as for the first, this is why many of us have closed our comments facilities and never read "below the line". I closed the JDCMB comments facility not because there were regular trolls, but because it was always a worry that there might be. One needs to eliminate sources of avoidable stress whenever possible.

When Amazon started to allow anonymous book reviews, one of the first things that happened to my stuff was that someone wrote a vicious anonymous review of my Korngold (pictured right) biography. I was convinced I knew who'd written that review and sent a letter to the Society of Authors journal saying, essentially, that anonymity makes nonsense of the whole idea of reviewing. Apparently this was news and I got interviewed by The Guardian. That was 15 years ago, never mind ten; it's still true; and it's still not sorted. (I still think I know who wrote that review, btw, only now I think it wasn't the person I thought it was then. It's worse. Never mind.)

As for free...well, this blog is, obviously, free. Mainly because I haven't worked out a way to put up a paywall. If it becomes possible, I may do so. I've tried other ways to allow it to bring in an income, including, briefly around 2009, virtually selling my soul (it's back - thanks). Occasionally some of you kindly decide to sponsor Solti's cat food and receive a sidebar advert in return. You can still do this if you so wish. Thank you to everyone who's taken up the possibility, especially, our latest long-term sponsor, for whom I now write a reasonably regular Soapbox column. Here's the latest, featuring one of Mr Buchanan's priceless cartoons: when should we applaud prodigies?

A lot has happened to me in ten years. I've written four novels, two plays and several words&music projects, joined the Independent as a freelance music and ballet correspondent, met and interviewed many of my heroes and heroines, become a bit of a campaigner for women's equality in the musical field and survived a Dalek invasion (my digestion remains a long-term casualty). I've travelled a lot and fallen in love with Budapest (right); I've trailed Martha Argerich to Rome; I've even found my way back from Munchkinland. And if you've enjoyed the novels to date, there IS another one, it is finished and it is musical (we just have to find it a publisher who doesn't think classical music is elitist...). But do read this article from The Observer today.

During the past decade we've watched the emergence of many glorious new artists: Benjamin Grosvenor, Daniil Trifonov, Juan Diego Florez, Jonas Kaufmann, Julia Fischer, Alisa Weilerstein, Joseph Calleja, Yuja Wang and more have risen to prominence. It's been a privilege to chart this. Here is my latest big interview for Opera News, with the glorious mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch (March issue cover feature).

But the most worrying thing at present is the reduction in freedom of expression that results from this bizarre climate of mass hysteria and free-for-all, line-toeing mudslinging, encouraged by the tabloids and a few bloggers who like high ratings. Such a climate has never happened before in my lifetime. "What do they want? Blood?" asked someone recently. I fear so. It resembles a primitive call for blood-letting - like The Rite of Spring, a ritual in hard times to bring back the sun. It is always the innocent who are sacrificed - whether it's an abstract force for good, like art music itself, or learning, or intellectual capability; or the Chosen Maiden of Stravinsky's ballet, who if you remember is a young, innocent and terrified teenage girl. Guess what? It doesn't help.

I believe we need nothing less than the Enlightenment. An embracing of reason, clarity, proportion, sense and sensibility; love to combat hatred; the power of laughter, which is also an endangered art; a note of sanity to restore rational thought against ideologies that have tipped askew under their own over-inflated obesity. This doesn't mean "a return to..." anything - because you can never go backwards. Nothing does. Time doesn't work like that. You can only go forward. Let's go forward to a fresh Enlightenment. Let there be light.

So, to celebrate JDCMB's tenth birthday, above is the ultimate Enlightenment masterpiece: Haydn's The Creation, a work that features all the qualities and values I love the most, in a performance from 1951 conducted by Eugen Jochum. Enjoy.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Today is the 20th anniversary of my mum's death. It still feels like yesterday. We miss her every day of our lives.

This is the Marietta Lute Song duet from Die tote Stadt by Korngold, sung in 1924 in Berlin by Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber, here rendered with superbly remastered sound. If you don't know the opera, it is all about coming to terms with loss. As Korngold's Paul discovers, you don't get over things. You can only learn to live with them, because there is no alternative.

If you want to see a video of the full opera, I can recommend a recently released DVD from Finnish National Opera - a production by Kasper Holten with stunning designs by Es Devlin, starring Klaus Florian Vogt as Paul and Camilla Nylund as Marietta.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

On your feet! It's Proms time

The sun is shining, Andy Murray's in the final and next week it's time for the Proms to begin. This season is stuffed full of Wagner operas and I have just one word to start you off: footwear. My guide to how to make the most of the Proms is in today's Independent, along with my personal pick of ten unmissable events. And yes, there will be Korngold.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Rite shares its birthday with....

Above, part of the first reconstruction, by the Joffrey Ballet, of the original Rite, choreographed by Nijinsky, designed by Roerich. And here, my article from The Independent (published 12 Feb) telling the story of that first night.

And... today is also Korngold's birthday. He turned 16 on the day the Stravinsky first hit the stage. He was quite a fan of Stravinsky, as it happens - there's a lovely story about when he went to hear Petrouchka and applauded and his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, tried to stop him. The young composer's response to the Rite furore either isn't recorded or hasn't reached my eyes/ears yet. One imagines the ballet might have caused Julius's blood pressure some problems.

It would be so interesting, on the one hand, to rewind the clock, air-lift Julius Korngold out of Erich Wolfgang's personal equation, let the lad study with Schoenberg and hang out with the avant-garde crowd and see how he ended up writing... But on the other hand, if he had done that, would he have come into contact at the crucial moment with Max Reinhardt? It was thanks to Reinhardt that he first went to Hollywood in 1934. He might not have escaped otherwise.

Anyhow, an actual staging of Das Wunder der Heliane has turned up on the Internet, so here is Act I. It's from Brno, with a setting that makes vivid reference to the fact that the opera shared its own year of birth with Fritz Lang's Metropolis. It is conducted by Peter Feranec and directed by Johannes Reitmeier. The second part is available to view on Youtube as well.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

'Forbidden Music' - a vital read

Michael Haas's Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis is being published on 7 May and is an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in setting the record straight about the nature of music in the 20th century. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the first major scholarly book to address its specific question. I have a short feature about it in The Independent today.

Here to go with it is a spot of appropriate opera: Korngold, in longing-for-the-past mode. This is "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen, es träumt sich zurück" from Die tote Stadt - the Pierrot Tanzlied, sung in this (unfortunately uncredited) production by [shock] a Pierrot. 

I'll never forget hearing Olaf Bär in Zurich having to sing this dressed in drag with basque, tights, six-inch black heels and butterfly wings, but that's another story.