Showing posts with label classical music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label classical music. Show all posts

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Zoom launch event for 'Immortal' on Tuesday

"O friends, not those tones!" That particular dog has had its day: soon a new day will dawn. Congratulations to our friends over the Pond for electing President Biden and Vice-President Harris! I've been out in the park this morning and everyone is smiling, despite lockdown. America's big moment can bring hope to us all: change is possible. 


Immortal - Jessica Duchen Book Launch

All the book events I had lined up for November have had to be cancelled/postponed due to the new lockdown (details in the sidebar, which I'll update as necessary). So we're having an online celebration instead. It's on Tuesday 10 November at 6pm UK time for round about an hour, and there'll be an interview, a reading, Q&A and hopefully even some music. If you'd like to join in, please register here to receive an email containing the Zoom link, and then just show up in cyberspace with a glass of something or a cuppa or whatever. We will do our best to make it as festive as possible! Hope to see you there.

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.

Monday, April 01, 2019

SHOCK MAESTRO MOVE: Rattle throws his hat into prospective PM ring

"I told you no good would come of Brexit!"
(Photo courtesy of the LSO)

In a move that will shock the orchestral profession worldwide, Sir Simon Rattle is rumoured to be on the point of announcing his intention to throw his hat into the political ring, instead of the Wagnerian one.

While the UK government is in meltdown over Brexit, sources close to the maestro say that he hopes to be a candidate for Prime Minister, standing at the next (no doubt imminent) election with a national unity manifesto.

"Music is a force for unity and cohesion," said one source, who preferred to remain anonymous. "Sir Simon has a uniquely charismatic, positive personality and the power to transcend the venomous divisions currently besetting both government and opposition in the House of Commons. We are not the only ones who think he's just the person to bring the country together again."

Another source remarked, more sourly: "If he can get an orchestra with its inevitable factionalism and cliques to pull together, he can do anything. British politics ought to be a doddle by comparison."

First, though, he must stand for election as a local MP. He is said to be eyeing the Richmond Park constituency, where the incumbent MP Zac Goldsmith was elected with a slender majority of just 45 votes and was noticed advocating a no-deal Brexit in last week's indicative votes, despite a 71% majority for Remain in his area. With many music-lovers resident in this part of south-west London, Sir Simon should gain an excellent level of support.

Music and politics have a long, distinguished history of mixing and matching. The legendary pianist Ignacy Paderewski became president of his native Poland. Conductor Kurt Masur, while Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, was a leading light in the collapse of the DDR, often mentioned as the figurehead who helped to keep the demonstrations non-violent. Further back, King Henry VIII is usually credited as the composer of 'Greensleeves'. In world music, Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour ran for his country's presidency in 2012 and Gilberto Gil was Brazilian Minister of Culture for five years (2003-08).

Rattle intends to maintain his concert schedule as planned, at least for the moment. "Who better than a musician," our source commented, "to step forward and save Britain in her hour of need?" She added as an aside: "He certainly can't make things any worse."

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"A gaping hole in the heart of British choral music"

I don't think I'm the only person who's currently so cheesed off with the behaviour of our dear country on the international stage that I've been feeling disinclined to listen to any British music. This is not good. Brexit isn't the fault of our composers - anything but. Therefore I'm making an effort to get back to them and I've asked William Vann to write us a guest post about Hubert Parry's oratorio Judith, which he is conducting at the London English Song Festival at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 April, no matter what happens on 29 March. He tells me this will be the work's first airing in London since the 19th century and that its neglect seems to him to be "a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music". Nevertheless, you might find some of it sounds familiar...

Please read on, have a listen and (unless you're in Great Malvern that night for the Schumann Violin Concerto) do give the concert a whirl. If you can't make it, watch out for the recording in due course. JD

‘It is the offspring not only of a finished musician but of a cultivated thinker. For such a possession art is the better and England the richer.’ Charles Villiers Stanford writing on Judith, 1888.

Hubert Parry,
younger than we usually think of him
2018, the year of the centenary of his death, saw a widespread reawakening of interest in the music of Hubert Parry, including the release of three discs of his complete English Lyrics on SOMM Recordings. Yet, particularly in the world of choral music, many of his large-scale works were overlooked in favour of well-known classics, such as the Songs of FarewellBlest Pair of Sirens, or I Was Glad.

The London English Song Festival’s performance of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s oratorio Judith on 3 April promises to be one of the most important revivals of English music for many years. A work of considerable stature and irresistible quality, Judith has not been performed in the UK since the 1950s; in London its last performance was at St James’s Hall in 1889 - 130 years ago! It has never been recorded. Parry was the master of large choral and orchestral forces, and Judith features spine-tingling choruses and a dramatic story. It was an overwhelming success in Victorian England, performed by some of that era’s greatest musicians all over the UK, and it contains the melody that later, under the name Repton, became the famous hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

George Grove appointed Parry as the Royal College of Music’s professor of composition and musical history in 1883, and he was finally able to put his unhappy career in insurance (he had been underwriter at Lloyd's of London from 1870 to 1877) behind him. The 1880s was a decade when he emerged as a composer of stature, with a reputation as a symphonist and as writer of choral music. His dramatic cantata, Scenes from Prometheus Unbound, had been performed at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of 1880 and he was again commissioned to write a short choral work for the Gloucester festival in 1883. Blest Pair of Sirens of 1886, setting Milton’s ‘At a solemn musick’ was commissioned by Stanford and the London Bach Choir to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee and was received with adulation by the public and critics alike.

Shortly afterwards, Parry was commissioned by the great triennial festival at Birmingham to write  a large-scale oratorio. Extensive choral participation was part of the brief: the Birmingham committee insisted on, as Parry put it, ‘regular oratorio’, and after much thought he settled on the dramatic story of Judith during the reign of the repentant Jewish king, Manasseh. After some wrangling with the Birmingham committee, Judith was performed on 29 August under the direction of the festival conductor, Hans Richter.

Parry's new oratorio was well received and was soon taken up by choral societies around Britain, notably in Edinburgh, London, Cambridge, Gloucester, Bristol and Oxford. The work contains many impressive choral movements, particularly in such numbers as ‘Our king is come again’ and the final fugue (‘Put off, O Jerusalem’) and the solo work is thrilling. The hymn tune Repton originated in the ballad of Meshullemeth, the queen-mother (‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’), who sings of the early Israelite history to her children.

It seems that Judith fell out of favour and fashion, along with much of Parry’s music, after his death. The next generation of composers took British classical music in a new direction: no bad thing, but with hindsight it was a pity that much of the finest of late 19th century music was discarded. The more I studied the score, playing through sections of choruses and arias with groups of singers, the more I grew to regard the neglect of this work as a gaping hole in the heart of British choral music.

And so, on Wednesday 3 April 2019, at Royal Festival Hall (an organ is crucial to a full performance!), Judith will receive its first London performance since the 19th century and its first UK performance within living memory. The soloists will be Sarah Fox as Judith (she features on discs 2 & 3 of the SOMM English Lyrics, as it happens), Kathryn Rudge as Meshullemeth, Toby Spence as Manasseh and Henry Waddington as High Priest of Moloch & Messenger of Holofernes. We will go on to record it for Chandos Records later in the month. I am thrilled to be conducting the four of them alongside the London Mozart Players, Crouch End Festival Chorus and a superb chorus of children, specially selected for the occasion. Join us!

William Vann

[Heard this tune somewhere before?]

Monday, May 16, 2011

"This house believes WHAT?"

The other day the Cambridge Union played host to a superstar debate on the topic "This house believes that classical music is irrelevant to the youth of today". It was a glorified launch for a new charity, but with Stephen Fry speaking against a DJ named Kissy Sell Out, it drew plenty of attention. I sent along my special Cambridge correspondent to report for JDCMB. Being young, she's much better placed than I am to comment in any case. Please welcome, fresh from her third-year studies at Peterhouse, HANNAH BOHM-DUCHEN.

“This House Believes That Classical Music Is Irrelevant To Today’s Youth”

This debate, held at the Cambridge Union on 12 May to a full house, marked the launch of a new charity called Vocal Futures, the brainchild of Suzi Digby (Lady Eatwell) OBE; and has been streamed online, a first for the Cambridge Union Society. Stephen Fry, Ivan Hewett, chief music critic for the Daily Telegraph, and Hugo Hickson, third year philosophy student at Gonville & Caius College, opposed the motion. Supporting the motion we heard BBC Radio One DJ Kissy Sell Out, Greg Sandow, composer, critic and artist-in-residence at University of Maryland School of Music and Joe Bates, classical music editor of The Tab, and music student at Gonville & Caius College.

“Stephen Fry, what a boring name compared to Kissy Sell Out”, commented the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today Show on the morning prior to the event at the Cambridge Union. The comment exemplified one of the principal arguments running through the debate: the relative accessibility of popular as opposed to classical music. Kissy Sell Out: it’s a catchy name and clearly part of a marketing ploy. Again and again, the immediate gratification and sense of collective fun engendered by popular music was pitted against classical music as seemingly inaccessible, less spontaneous, and divorced from a collective, youthful culture.

Joe Bates, the student speaker proposing the motion, emphasized the exclusivity of classical music throughout history, arguing that listening to classical music today gives preference to the products of a historical élite over the products of contemporary culture. The next student speaker, Hugo Hickson, arguing for the opposition, stated that great classical music has eternal relevance and stands outside time, as does any great work of art, for example Shakespeare’s plays or the Greek Tragedies.

Kissy Sell Out, for the proposition, demanded that music be instantly accessible and asserted that the very names given to classical music illustrate their divorce from popular culture, revealing his own prejudices when he joked about a name of a classical work: “Number … of Number …. of Hogwarts … ” The lack of interactivity in classical music, he suggested, could be illustrated by the contrast between the responses of audiences at concerts of classical music, and concerts of popular music. Kissy also stressed the importance of musical genres in fostering a sense of belonging , and here, once again, classical music was presented as an élitist art form.

Ivan Hewett, for the opposition, finally addressed the problematic nature of the term ‘irrelevant’. Unfortunately, such crucial questioning was put to one side and not pushed further than initial speculation. Hewett also cast doubt on whether ‘today’s youth’ could easily be distinguished from ‘yesterday’s youth’; proposed that beauty was, necessarily, the quintessence of the irrelevant; and highlighted the universality of the themes evoked by classical music.

Greg Sandow drew on his experience of teaching at the Juilliard School to support the motion. He stated that there was a reduced interest in classical music courses, and that the strict regulations inherent in the forms of classical music could suppress potential creativity, and run counter to our impulse to do as we wish. Sandow suggested that the potential irrelevance of classical music was not limited solely to ‘today’s youth’, but was also associated with racial, ethnic, and cultural divides. Again, it was stated that the greatest obstacle to an appreciation of classical music was its association with entitlement and privilege.

Lady Gaga went to the Juilliard School, and Stephen Fry was quick to point this out, countering the claim that a classical training could restrict an impulse to “do as we wish”. Fry was also keen to make clear that a hierarchical approach to music was unnecessary. Real snobbery, Fry suggested, comes from fans of those genres of music that have been deemed “cool”. Further, the fustiness of the world of classical music was called into question: Beethoven and Mozart, after all, were far from being members of an élite.

It was sad, Fry mooted, that people are not taught how to listen. Listening requires time, and there is a general avoidance of anything that is “beguilingly complicated”. A concerto, he pointed out, was an argument between an individual instrument and an orchestra: a dynamic interchange between the individual and the state, and the highest calling, embodying love, hope, triumph and magnificence. Fry claimed that it was pure lack of imagination and artistic creativity that could keep one from enjoying classical music, and that “if you don’t have the imagination to blow the dust off the wigs then you don’t deserve any music”.

Lord Eatwell summed up for the proposition. Tongue-in-cheek, he claimed that modern classical music has borne little fruit, and that recycling remnants of past compositions points towards the conclusion that an art that doesn’t grow is dead.

Suzi Digby’s closing words for the opposition stressed that pop music is relevant because one can easily see oneself in it, and argued that since the appeal of classical music is beyond logic, and “speaks to the soul”, everyone should be able to relate and interact with such music. Further, Digby was adamant that it is the stuffy pretentiousness of the performance of most classical music that made it irrelevant to today’s youth, and that this was what has to change.

The opposition won the debate by a wide margin. There were 365 ‘Noes’, 57 ‘Ayes’, and 88 abstentions.

Somewhere with another type of demographic, the result could undoubtedly have been rather different. Since one can only decide whether something is irrelevant if one has engaged with it, this genre surely has to become more accessible if young people are to have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not the classical genre “speaks to their souls”. Classical music requires patience, and touches complex emotions. Although one should beware of generalizing about “today’s youth”, patience and sensitivity to complex emotional experiences are not generally central to the lives of young people – but they should be. Perhaps the Haydn String Quartet No.1 in B Flat Major, played on the Today Show, should be relabelled, echoing the title of Kissy Sell Out’s new track: ‘Eternal’.

It is of course also simplistic to generalize about all classical music: some classical works are of course much more accessible than others. The radio station Classic FM, for example, blatantly selects pieces that are easy on the ear. Yet it is surely the very complexity of classical music which provides its interest. The ongoing relevance of any music depends on the quality and inventiveness of that music: we still listen to music by the Beatles or by John Coltrane. Classical music, moreover, sometimes spills over into popular culture. Hovis and Néscafé adverts have graced us with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and one would be hard pressed to find a ‘youth of today’ for whom these items did not brighten their ‘morning mood’. If Hovis and Néscafé reckon that classical music is relevant, so should we.
Hannah Bohm-Duchen