Wednesday, October 16, 2013

More precious than rubies

Who can find a virtuous woman? And what does "virtue" mean? I had a fascinating talk with Fiona Shaw, who is directing Britten's The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. The first night is on Saturday and the cast includes Kate Valentine and Allan Clayton/Andrew Dickinson as the Choruses, Claudia Huckle as Lucretia and Duncan Rock as Tarquinius, among others. Part of the interview appeared in The Independent the other day, and here is the director's cut...

Fiona Shaw is worried about our view of “virtuous” women of stage, page and history. Earlier this year, the renowned Irish actress and director took the role of the Virgin Mary on Broadway; but the production, Colm Tóibín’s play The Testament of Mary, sparked protests outside the theatre by members of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.

“Who is the Virgin Mary? We discovered her to be a mother very angry about her son being crucified,” Shaw says. “But apparently it is sacrilege to suggest that a ‘virtuous’ woman is more interesting than the bland version that’s been handed down to us.”

This is a concept more than pertinent to Shaw’s latest project: she is staging Britten’s chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia for Glyndebourne Touring Opera. Its storyline is outwardly simple, but the emotions behind it are anything but; and its final attempt to extrapolate meaning from tragedy heightens its ambiguities. 

The story is based on a Roman legend that has been reinterpreted in many forms over the centuries. The army officers have tested their wives’ fidelity in their absence; only Lucretia, wife of the general Collatinus, has emerged untainted. This provokes jealousy among the soldiers whose spouses have strayed. To test her virtue, or indeed to prove it, the prince Tarquinius visits Lucretia’s house by night and eventually rapes her. When Collatinus returns he places no blame on his devastated wife; but rather than live under such a shadow, she takes her own life. 

“What is virtue?” Shaw demands. “It’s interesting that we meet Lucretia when she is at her most frustrated and fed up, with her husband away. ‘Virtue’ is nothing to do with not being frustrated, or with not having another glass of wine because you want to stay up; after all, it’s also virtuous to want to be awake because you can’t bear to go to bed without your husband. That doesn’t come in any guise of prudery. Lucretia’s an immediate person, not a saint.” The central role is sung by the mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who will, Shaw says, give a “feisty” interpretation.

The opera, which was premiered at Glyndebourne itself in 1946, must have been shocking in its day, when rape was very much a taboo subject. “I find it quite shocking still,” Shaw remarks. “It’s painful, what is being exposed, and the music is so brilliantly constructed that you feel pierced by it. It leaves Mozart standing, some of it.”

Nevertheless, the composer – famously homosexual in an era when this was still illegal – was not always at his best when creating female characters. His finest are often motherly figures, like the Governess in The Turn of the Screw; but his Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana never becomes as real as the eponymous heroes of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, outsiders amid hostile societies that reject their troubled or non-conforming visions of life. Lucretia is often regarded as his one truly convincing heroine; and Britten and his librettist, the poet Ronald Duncan, provide her with a wealth of concealed or unconscious depths, desires and conflicts. 

“Britten is so good at dealing with the most complex issue: what is it to have secret desires and be punished for it?” Shaw says. She has no doubt that in the opera the rape is precisely that: Lucretia refuses Tarquinius at every turn, is ultimately forced, and the act drives her to suicide. Yet there is still a suggestion of an attraction to him, upon which she refuses to let herself act. “What a hell to be put through: to be forced to do something that your moral sense would make you not do, but your instinct would desire you to do. In that way, with that double twist, the opera is nearer to a Greek tragedy than anything else. At the end she tells us the she knows the consequences of living now, admitting to desire – not to acting on desire, but to having desire – would be a blemish on her marriage. So she’s the most honourable person – and the opera throws a little light on a very dark part of our psyches.

“Britten is looking under the stone and seeing the muddy waters that lie beneath us all, maybe beneath morality itself,” she continues. “The Greeks were very good at this – but the notion of Christianity is that Jesus looked with compassion at us, but our sin is to be human, is to be flawed, is to have these contradictory feelings and try to deal with them. Lucretia is the most upright person. She is at home, passive, she made no action – but somewhere her secret desire came to her in the night. And she resisted. And yet it ruined her marriage. That’s the tragedy of it.” 

Britten adds a male and female ‘chorus’, who watch and comment on the action throughout; Shaw says that in the new production they are a present-day couple whose marriage is suffering and who work through their own issues by observing Lucretia’s story. The opera’s Christian element is articulated in their bleak yet compassionate postlude: “Is it all?” they ask.

She has introduced a further twist still: “I want it to be about the destruction of a family, not only a couple.” Lucretia and Collatinus therefore have a small daughter, an eight-year-old who witnesses the horror of her mother’s death: “It’s to do with the continuity of children; the consequences for the next generation are worth showing.” 

Lucretia, in Shaw’s opinion, is “up there with the classics,” as she declares. “It’s explores that terribly deep psychic schism that’s in us and it’s a brave and beautiful opera. Humans in it are not all terrible; Tarquinius is not a baddy and Lucretia is not a goody. That’s the beauty of opera: it allows you to meditate on the complexity of our choices. I think it’s fantastic that Britten writes so much about that. The chilly unease that he brings to most of his work is to do with the fact that the major chord of society’s vision of itself is not his experience.” 

Is Britten, then, his own outsider, that “different” figure at the heart of most of his operas? “Yes,” says Shaw. “But we all are.”

The Rape of Lucretia, Glyndebourne Touring Opera, from 19 October. Tour dates and booking online:

Fiona has also written a 'director's diary' which is out in The Guardian today.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Watch Julian Jacobson's Beethoven Marathon live today!

Assuming this works, you should be able to watch Julian Jacobson's extraordinary undertaking today - all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in one day - in the livestream below, starting at 9.15am London time. (If for any reason it doesn't work, here is a link to one that should.) To donate to Julian's chosen charities, WaterAid and The Connection at St Martin's, please click here. And if you missed the original post, read it here.

Break a leg, Julian!

Watch live streaming video from marathonman at

Monday, October 14, 2013

My autumn & winter schedule

Here are some dates for your diaries, fresh from my writing desk: a brand-new words&music concert, a brand-new play, more HUNGARIAN DANCES. Please come along! (The info is also in the sidebar, but certain people are telling me to put it somewhere more prominent...)


Starring Viv McLean (piano) (left) & Jessica Duchen (narrator).

A concert adaptation of my novel, lifting the lid on the world of a child prodigy pianist trying to grow up. Music includes Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Viv's famous performance of Rhapsody in Blue, and a little surprise to end (clue: I have to practise...). News story in International Piano, here.

World premiere: 9 November, Musical Museum, Kew Bridge.To book tickets, call Houben's Bookshop, Richmond-upon-Thames, 020 8940 1055 or Yvonne Evans, 07889 399862. Ticket price includes a tour of the museum's amazing collection plus a glass of bubbly.

13 November, Kensington & Chelsea Music Society

27 November, Vernon Ellis Foundation, 49 Queen's Gate Terrace, SW7. Info from Yvonne: 07889 399862.

8 December, St Mary's, Perivale

15 December, Burgh House, Hampstead, NW3. Tickets from Yvonne: 07889 399862.

18 January, Soirees at Breinton, Woking


World premiere of my first full-length play, exploring the relationships of Wagner, Liszt and Cosima: rehearsed reading starring John Sessions (right) and Sarah Gabriel. 24 November, Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond-upon-Thames. Part of the International Wimbledon Music Festival. NB - the performance is sold out, but please watch for returns/standing room!


A dazzling journey in words and music through the 20th century, following the story of Mimi, a Hungarian Gypsy violinist who becomes a famous classical soloist, but at a terrible personal price... Works by Bartok, Dohnanyi, Brahms, Ravel, etc.

27 October, 7.45pm, Teesside Music Society.
Bradley Creswick (violin), Margaret Fingerhut (piano), Jessica Duchen (narrator). (Team pictured left)

27 January 2014, Hungarian Cultural Centre, Covent Garden
David Le Page (violin), Viv McLean (piano), Jessica Duchen (narrator). Special performance for International Holocaust Memorial Day.

2 March 2014, St Mary's, Perivale: again, Dave, Viv & muggins.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Marathon man and the Beethoven challenge

He says himself, "It's basically bananas". Nevertheless, the pianist Julian Jacobson is about to play all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day. From memory. For charity. On Tuesday 15 October 2013, 9.15am – 10pm at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London. The aim is to raise money for WaterAid and St Martin-in-the-Fields’ ‘The Connection at St Martin’s’ that gives crisis grants to people in need across the UK.  You can make a donation here. 

The whole day is being live-streamed on the Internet, and (drumroll) I hope that you will be able to watch it right here on JDCMB. (This assumes that I can get the technology to work.)

What's without doubt is that Julian's a brave man. I asked him some questions...

JD: Julian, you're playing all the 32 Beethoven sonatas in one day, from memory?!? How and why did you cook up this extraordinary idea?

JJ: Thanks Jessica. Well, it's actually my third marathon - and it will almost certainly be my last! By around 2001 I had done five complete cycles over the normal seven or eight concerts (once over ten, as they were lunchtimes), from memory except that I sometimes used the score for the "Hammerklavier". One day the idea suddenly came to me: "I wonder if it's actually possible to do them all in a day..." I counted up the timings and found that, by omitting most of the exposition repeats, it was just about manageable. And from then on the idea wouldn't let me go. 

I thought I'd do it just once, and that was in St James's Piccadilly in October 2003, for WaterAid as this time. A Beethoven lover, Mr Tom Glaser, was at that performance and booked me for a repeat performance in 2004 at the Harrow Arts Centre. And I thought that would be that, and I remember driving back down to London yelling to my companion "Hooray, never again!". But a couple of years ago I began to wonder if I had it in me to do it one more time, as a tenth anniversary and because I'm 65 this year! So here we are.

In 2003 I used the score just for the "Hammerklavier"; in 2004 I did the lot from memory as I intend to this time. It's not even that I particularly adhere to the custom of playing from memory, either for myself or certainly for anyone else (except that one's students still have to do it, poor things), but it doesn't seem quite like a real marathon performance if I just put the books up there and read through them all. And there IS something of the "stunt" about it, I'm very aware of that, some musicians think it's not really a serious venture at all, and I insist that it's for charity. Though of course I will play it all to my best ability!  

JD: What do you think is the single most difficult thing about it?

JJ: Keeping going! Not losing concentration, avoiding thinking what I have already played or am going to play, Monitoring hands and back to ensure they hold out.

JD: Any special favourites among the sonatas? 

JJ: Op 101. Then some overlooked gems like Op.79. The "Appassionata" remains permanently sublime.  

JD: How long has it taken you to learn them all and how have you been preparing for the big day? 

JJ: I claim to be the only Beethoven pianist - if I may call myself that - who learnt the "Moonlight" and "Pathétique" at the age of 45! I would never learn the popular pieces in the first part of my life. I hatched the idea around 1989, by which time I'd played perhaps 12 of them. Firstly I learnt the "Hammerklavier" and played it at Dartington, as I felt there was no point in even considering a Beethoven cycle until I had that under my belt, or at least vaguely attached to the buckles. (I had already done op 101, 109, 110 and 111). Then I put the idea on ice till I got my job as Head of Keyboard Studies at the Welsh College in 1992. At that point, with the security of a salary, I planned an initial couple of cycles and spent the whole summer vacation of 1994 learning all the rest.

Preparing for the big day: impossible to know how to do it really! Mainly I've been going through them all in decreasing time spans, so I started around six months ago to re-study every one, then worked through them all again in a few weeks, then over about ten days, and now just in four days. A short while ago I stopped listening to any other pianists, and indeed to most other music, in order to concentrate entirely on my own performances "right or wrong".

JD: Tell us a little about the charities you've chosen to support.

JJ: I'm a long-term supporter of WaterAid: firstly I love the work they do, as water is such a fundamental need and it is something we can actually do something about, and then it is a very well run charity that I feel happy about giving extra support to. The Connection does vital work among the homeless and I've been impressed by the care and thought that goes into their activities and projects, also by the dignity with which they treat the people they are helping. It's a homegrown charity, whereas WaterAid is largely active in the third world, so they complement each other nicely.

JD: And there's a live stream on the Internet? How do you feel about that?

JJ: Apprehensive! And that I will try to put it out of my mind. The point is to increase the amount of money for the charities.

JD: Anything else you'd like to tell us about the task ahead?

JJ: Well, I really won't do it again! I mean, it's basically bananas. I've had fantastic support from friends and family. A few people have said they'll come for the whole day to follow Beethoven's progress throughout the 32 sonatas and that's a nice thought. And, when it comes down to it, the fundamental thing is that the music is immeasurably great and wonderful: Beethoven had such creativity and he never repeated himself (as he was well aware). Whatever I feel about the marathon aspect, I love the music, and every sonata, every movement, has given me intense pleasure to re-study.

Here is Julian's donations page again. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Protecting music education: a vital message from the ISM

The ISM has emailed today with the following message. Please support their call!   

Take action now to protect music education
Thank you for supporting the Protect Music Education campaign.
We still don’t know for certain whether or not funding for music education hubs in England will continue after 2015.
Whilst the schools budget has been protected from cuts, the Education Services Grant is to be cut by £200 million: that’s almost four times what the Government will be spending on music education by 2015!
We have asked the Government to confirm their continued support for music education; whatever the reply, we need as many people as possible ready to fight to protect music education.
Here is what you can do to help today:
1. Tell us why music education matters to you
With more than 30 music organisations now backing the campaign, from the Music Industries Association through to NMC recordings and Conservatoires UK we now want to hear what you have to say!
Each organisation has contributed approximately 100 words on the importance of music education and we want you to do the same - all you need to do is tell us why music education matters to you by using the forum on our petition page.
For some inspiration, our newest supporters, Yorkshire Music Education Service said:
'The inspirational work done by music educators across the country transforms the lives of young people every day. The effect of music on personal development is phenomenal - it promotes dedication and teamwork, and can provide a lifetime of enjoyment. It is essential that ring-fenced funding to support high quality music education is retained - without it, access will be diminished and our society will be poorer for it.'
We now want to hear why music education matters to you!
2. Tell others about the campaign
As well as telling us about the importance of music education, you can also encourage others to sign up. Ask your pupils, parents, friends, family and colleagues to sign up to the campaign today.
And you can tweet about the campaign and tell people about it on Facebook using the #protectmusic campaign hash tag.
Thank you again for your support. Please spread the word about the campaign as wide as you can. Together we can make an impact on Government policy and ensure that music education is protected for the generations to come.