Showing posts with label Mikhail Bulgakov. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mikhail Bulgakov. Show all posts

Friday, January 18, 2019

Musical inspiration and where to find it

What spurs a new piece of music into existence? Where do composers find their inspiration? Here is a wonderful insight from someone who knows all about it. 

Stephen Johnson's extremely moving How Shostakovich Changed My Mind was one of my Books of the Year for the Sunday Times, so it was a particular joy that he wrote a couple of weeks ago to tell me about his new Clarinet Quintet, 'Angel's Arc', which receives its world premiere next Thursday. At the time I was in South Africa, cuddling lion cubs and so forth, which made writing something myself a bit tricky. Fortunately Stephen - author, journalist and composer - was only too happy to pen us a guest post. Here he reveals how the piece took shape in his imagination, with a range of vivid and varied references that mirrors his splendid book - from the literary and the biblical to the natural, the emotional and even the feline. 

Enjoy. And do go and hear his new quintet if you can - full performance listings are at the end of the article. JD

A rainbow snapped during the first rehearsal of Angel's Arc. Photo: Kate Johnson

Angel's Arc

A guest post by Stephen Johnson

It was a cat who inspired my orchestral piece Behemoth Dances: the pistol-packing, chandelier-swinging cat-demon Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov's wild, terrifying, utterly magical novel The Master and Margarita.And in a different, slightly more oblique way it was a cat who set my Clarinet Quintet, Angel's Arc, in motion. 

Two years ago, my wife Kate and I lost our much-loved Agatha, a tiny ginger female cat of immense character, who had a way of charming round even resolute cat-haters. Our wise vet, Amanda - who put Agatha very tenderly to sleep in her favourite spot in our garden, on a heartbreakingly beautiful summer morning - told us afterwards that in her experience the loss of a beloved pet often released feelings of grief connected with other important losses. So it was with Agatha's parting. I felt keenly the loss of my father-in-law, Harold Jones, a remarkable old-fashioned rural rector with some very un-old-fashioned views and a generous, loving heart. I'd lost my aunt, Elizabeth (Betty) Johnson, nearly twenty years earlier, but now I felt her absence more than ever, and wished terribly that she could have witnessed the emergence of Behemoth Dancesinto the light. I also realised with new intensity just how much both these two people had stood in loco parentis, and how privileged I had been to have them in my life.

Then along came Andrew Jamieson, the IMG impresario who, in a magnificent leap of faith, had arranged the Moscow and UK performances of Behemoth Dancesafter hearing just three minutes of it in a horrible computer playback version. He suggested that I might follow it up with a clarinet quintet - he already had Emma Johnson and the Carducci Quartet in mind. I leapt at the chance: I loved the clarinet, and the two glorious quintets Mozart had Brahms had written for it. But where was the seminal musical idea? 

Playing around on the piano it struck me that I could make a kind of Schumann/Shostakovich-style cipher out of the letters of Agatha's name: with Te (sol fa) representing B, plus H from German notation, it gave A-G-A-B-B-A - a chant-like motif very like the haunting plainsong phrase 'Lux aeterna' I'd used in Behemoth Dances. Suddenly a host of ideas began to flow from that tiny motif. Fascinatingly, as with Behemoth, the shape of the whole thing seemed fairly clear from the start: beginning, middle and end were quite distinct. But the title, and with it the emotional character, took a little while to emerge from the mist - almost literally, as there is something very mist-like about the hushed opening pages: lots of natural string harmonics and clarinet echo tones. 

As I worked on what was at first simply my 'Clarinet Quintet', I found that memories of the West Pennine moors, and their surrounding woodlands and lakes, were flooding into mind. As a teenager I'd loved those moors with a fierce passion, and I walked and cycled them energetically. The wildest expanse of moorland bore the striking name Anglezarke, and I remember someone (it might have been a teacher) telling me that it derived from the Flemish words 'Angel's Arc', or 'Ark' - the story was that it was given this name centuries earlier by Protestant refugees fleeing persecution in the Spanish Netherlands. Almost certainly this was nonsense: my place-name dictionary gives the derivation as from the Norse 'Anlaf's hill-pasture'. But at the time I could hardly have cared less, nor would I have been terribly interested if I'd been told that my favourite line from the Book of Psalms, 'I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills', was a mistranslation. What has dull fact to do with poetry - especially when poetic fantasy is one of the few precious things that helps you to find your way emotionally? And as this poetic idea was now helping me find my way musically, here surely was my title: Angel's Arc.  

Once I'd embraced that title, and the images that came inevitably with it, vivid memories of Harold and Betty followed. Harold's favourite line from the Anglican Communion Service, 'Lift up your hearts', along with the response, 'We lift them up to the Lord', morphed in my mind with the idea of looking up to the hills for help: both found their way into the score. 

As for Betty, I'd noted quotations from, or allusions to, symphonies I'd adored as a teenager emerging quite spontaneously as I wrote: Walton One, Bruckner Nine, Mahler Six. And then it hit me: it was Betty who'd given me the scores of all three symphonies as birthday presents. I still have them, battered, dog-eared and irreplaceable. Here then were keys to the emotional significance of this music - for me at least. There is grief in this music, but also gratitude. It's a close-run thing, but in the end I think gratitude wins: gratitude to Betty, to Harold (whom I also have to thank for Kate), to Andrew Jamieson, who made these three performances happen, to the friend-sponsors who gave their financial support, Fiona Costa, Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum and Irina Knaster, and to those wonderful hills - and to whoever or whatever made them. Angel's Arcis my hymn of thanks. 

Stephen Johnson

Emma Johnson, clarinet
Carducci String Quartet (based in Cheltenham)


Brahms – Clarinet Quintet (35 mins, 1891)
Johnson – Clarinet Quintet, Angel's Arc(14 – 15 mins, 2018)
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet (30 mins, 1789)

Monday, April 07, 2014

Russian around in Moscow

I've just been to Moscow for the first time. Since I've been mesmerised by Russian literature and music for as long as I can remember, it's taken me a while to get there. Yet much as I love the culture that I know, nothing, but nothing, had prepared me for the sheer magnitude of the real thing.

These guys do nothing by halves.

Moscow is a giant onion, one that makes London - less than half its size - seem like mere wild garlic. This onion is still growing. You can peel back layer after layer, prising them apart with some difficulty: Tsarist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, everything superimposed and juxtaposed or simply posing - but as fast as you slice, so the new skins slide into being. Everywhere you notice building, restoration, cranes, scaffolding. It's a city that never ceases the process of becoming.

I've been paying house-calls to a few personal heroes. While tourists queue to worship the hoard of silver, gold and Fabergé-jewelled treasures at the Kremlin's Armoury [note to self: Google how this little lot survived 1917?], I found real treasure in the love with which the modest composer and writer museums are cared for - I saw Scriabin's, Chekhov's, Pushkin's, Bulgakov's (the haunted flat itself), but there are many more, and almost every one with a little theatre or concert room attached. The Bakhrushin Theatre Museum is a gem, filled with its eponymous collector's assemblage of memorabilia including Chaliapin's costume for Prince Igor, some rare portraits and photos of Pavlova, Nijinsky, Karsavina, and much more...

Here's Chekhov's house on the Sadovaya Ring, his home between 1886 and 1890:

Today, though, his view over the road looks like this:

Scriabin's home is particularly excellent. The apartment, in a dark turning off Old Arbat Street, feels as if he and his family could walk in at any moment. There's even a little machine on which he would mix coloured lights, furnished with still-functioning bulbs. Here is his Bechstein:

Casts of his hands - and his top hat and tails, preserved in a glass case - prove that he was remarkably tiny in stature. Just picture him strolling up the street with his student chum, Sergei Rachmaninov...

Hours after visiting Scriabin's home, I encountered some of his music. Peter Donohoe played Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No.3 with the Moscow Philharmonic at the Great Hall of the Conservatoire (pictured at the top of this post, the conservatoire with its statue of Tchaikovsky) - an amazing performance in which Peter brought such a range of power and colour to the solo part that it was like having a second orchestra on stage. As encore he added Scriabin's Fifth Sonata - and, listening, to compare that little ring of coloured lights with the breathtaking wildfire of the composer's imagination is quite a leap. Moscow may seem vast; but the inward vision of some of its artists was treble that size. 

Peter, as it happens, was my cover star for the very first issue of my old Classical Piano Magazine, some 21 years ago (!) and is somewhat renowned for beating the Russians at their own game - notably the Tchaikovsky Competition at which he shot to fame in 1982. If you don't yet know his blog, please have a read. This British piano lion completely "gets" Russian music and the style of the Russian school, with all the necessary perspective, limitless expressive range and oversized scale of concept. He's a brilliant raconteur, too, and has much to say about his tours of Russia in the Soviet era. It was snowing just before his concerto the other day and the wind chill was around -6. Hah, said Peter, that's nothing. He once did a concert in Siberia in -58. And the hall was full. That was just the beginning...

The Conservatoire (pictured, top, with its statue of Tchaikovsky) has been restored, and beautifully so; the process is, of course, ongoing. The Great Hall feels bizarrely intimate given its generous seating capacity, and its acoustic is warm, vibrant and vivid - among the best I've encountered. The soaring staircases and foyers are painted delicate shell shades and portraits of composers adorn the walls. I had some fun with my limited knowledge of Cyrillic, working out how to spell HAYDN; it comes out as something resembling GAIDEYNI.

If you love literature and music you can't help enjoying the fact that the biggest statues around Moscow are of writers and composers; many streets, squares and Metro stations are named after them. This towering man is Mayakovsky, in the centre of a large square outside the Tchaikovsky Hall:

And here is the entrance to the apartment building housing Bulgakov's "odd flat" from The Master and Margarita:

In five days I have scarcely made so much as a first incision into the surface of this metropolis, one that can, conversely, swallow you up at a gulp. Only one solution: go back, soon.

I had a list six pages long of must-sees, and I saw about one third of one page. I've come home, though, with a still longer list of must-reads and must-hears. We read Chekhov here...but not Ostrovsky? We know about Glinka...but not Verstovsky? (Who he? - Ed. contemporary of Glinka's, vital Russian opera pioneer, but here name pretty much unspoken and music unplayed...). We know something about Stanislavsky - but we maybe didn't know that Chekhov's nephew took another branch of the Method to America with him and taught it to some of Hollywood's leading actors. And when do we ever stumble over a volume of Mayakovsky in sunny London?

Here is a memorial to Emil Gilels on the apartment block where he lived:

Hugely grateful to our wonderful Russian friends Alex and Erika, Sasha, and the British Council people who threw a very lively party in Café Tchaikovsky after a certain concert the other night, for making us feel so welcome and at ease in what might otherwise have been a daunting environment...and for taking us to some super restaurants - one Uzbek, another Georgian, and the Coffee Mania outlet beside the Moscow Conservatoire - plus the cafés of the Shokolade chain, where I sampled something delicious called sea buckthorn, packed full of vitamin C and jolly nice with honey and lemon.

After merely five days in Moscow, staying on Tverskaya Street (over the road from the Gilels plaque) amid unbelievable quantities of traffic (four lanes in each direction, or five?), with the thrill of seeing Red Square for the first time, and having to go "Pinch me, someone, I am really, truly, in the Moscow Metro..." it feels very odd to be home. Trips like this give you a new perspective, honest, guv. The South Circular? A little suburban side street. British weather? Mild, excessively damp, but kind. Surroundings? Green. Very green. You can smell the blossoms. It's quiet. As for cultural life - someone said that there are 40 orchestras in Moscow, most of them state funded. Theatres, concerts, ballet, opera, performance - it is part of a whole way of life. Like I said, these guys do nothing by halves.

You see what I mean?