Sunday, October 28, 2018

Turgenev's 200th

Ivan Turgenev
I learned, a little late, that today is the bicentenary of one of the writers I love best: Ivan Turgenev. (Some give the date as '9 November new style', though; take your pick.)

He's perhaps the quieter, undersung hero of Russian literature, sometimes submerged under the tidal waves of Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and the rest. Yet to encounter his novella First Love is to find a work so perfect that it encapsulates an ideal story structure before anyone thought there was any such thing, and - perhaps more importantly - there is not one spare paragraph in it. I once attempted to abridge it for reading with music and it simply couldn't be done. Remove any tiny element and the edifice is wrecked.

Ballet-lovers are - as so often with rare music and literature - better informed than many of us. A Month in the Country is probably seen more often in Frederick Ashton's beautiful Chopin-filled interpretation than as Turgenev's original play, at least in the UK.

It's highly autobiographical, of course. Turgenev spent most of his adult life in thrall to the great singer Pauline Viardot, who was married to a distinguished theatre director 20 years her senior, and the play reflects Turgenev's sense of frustration and depression as the more-or-less resident 'admirer', watching helplessly as she is seduced by someone else. [I am sure I read somewhere that the younger man in the story who arrives and causes havoc had some basis in Charles Gounod... but I can't immediately lay my hands on the right book to check this.]

Viardot was a protegée of George Sand, friend of Chopin, sometime pupil of Liszt, sister of Maria Malibran and inspirer of music ranging from Meyerbeer and Berlioz to Saint-Saëns, Brahms (the Alto Rhapsody) and - at a bit of a tangent - Bizet. She was of course a fabulous composer as well and Turgenev wrote her three operetta libretti. He also wrote a libretto for Brahms, which - dang - was never set. Saint-Saëns brought the young Fauré to her salon where he fell in love with her third daughter, Marianne, and spent four formative years amid this extraordinary milieu.

Turgenev was fond of Fauré and helped to persuade Marianne to accept his proposal - only to have her dump him three months later, scared away, apparently, by the young composer's passionate intensity. Fauré spoke touchingly of Turgenev later in life, remarking that whenever he read his prose, it was as if he could hear the author's gentle voice again.

Several years after finishing my Fauré biography, I read, for other reasons, a story I hadn't come across before by Turgenev: The Song of Triumphant Love. This was the fantastical, Renaissance-set tale that inspired Chausson to create his Poème. It was written several years after Fauré and Marianne split up. And there, in the story, were two figures who seemed, in terms of their character, very, very familiar. I spent some time delving into this, convinced I'd stumbled upon something that nobody had spotted since Turgenev himself (though one can never be sure, naturally), and exploring whether it was plausible he had based these characters on Fauré and Marianne. It was eminently plausible, as things turned out...

The article that resulted was published in The Strad, together with an exploration of the Poème itself by Philippe Graffin. It's on my website, so here it is again in tribute to this glorious writer and his circle. Enjoy.

(I also borrowed the title for a novel - not about them, but a present-day story inspired to some extent by them.)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Never give up...

My Top 10 ODETTE FAQs...

Q: Ooh, Odette? The World War II spy? Or Proust?
J: Er, no. Swan Lake.

Q: The Tchaikovsky ballet? So did you go to Russia to research it?
J: Actually, the book's set in a university town in East Anglia in 2018.

Q: So it's, like, real fiction?
J: Well, one of the main characters turns into a swan every day, so, yep.

Q: How did you get the idea?
J: I had this recurring dream about looking for my Swan Lake book, and it was never there, so I thought I might write it...

Q: Maybe I should get it for my 9-yr-old daughter. She's mad about ballet.
J: Well, it's not really suitable for 9-yr-olds, and there's no actual ballet in it.

Q: If there's no ballet, what's it about?
J: Outsiders. How we treat them. How they respond to us. How we change each others' lives. How much responsibility do we have to look after other people?  

Q: And it's for which age group?
J: Adults, though could probably be enjoyed by the young adult market.

Q: But who's it aimed at?
J: Anyone who fancies crossing Swan Lake with Bridget Jones and A Christmas Carol. Some will 'get' it, some won't, and that's fine. [Evoke Marmite HERE if desired.]

Q: How come it took you 26 years?
J: I started it in 1992 and have been rewriting and updating it ever since. Maybe it just needed the right publisher - one who didn't mind dealing with something not quite like anything else out there. For 25 years they all minded a lot. Meanwhile other things came along, first Korngold, then Fauré, then the Independent; and life happened, as it tends to, so I was dealing with three cancer deaths in my immediate family, trying to keep my head above the freelance waters, then getting married, moving house, and writing four other novels on contract, plus Ghost Variations, which itself took 5 years while more life happened... And finally Unbound said, 'Great, bring it on.'

Q: But why did you keep trying?
J: I couldn't let go of it. I couldn't just leave it there. There's something in that book that holds all I wanted to be and say before my parents and sister were ill and dying and before the domino effect that had on daily existence. It contains something that's innocent and hopeful and human. And finally I want to get it back in some way, or at least find I didn't entirely lose all of it in the onslaught. It's changed over the years, of course, on every rewrite, but the essence of that search is still there. As Solti would have said: never give up.

And meanwhile...
Dear friends, if you would like to support ODETTE, you have just 3 DAYS LEFT. To get your name onto the patrons' list, please sign up before the end of 28 October. Publication date is 29 November, in time for Christmas. At Unbound you can pre-order by pledging for a paperback, a digital copy, or good deals for two copies or five, or other special offers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Plastic shmashtic

I just photographed the packaging of my latest assignment

While I'm writing this, I ought to be writing a CD review. Yes, my copy for BBC Music Magazine is late. Why? Because yesterday I spent so long picking and scratching and scrubbing at the plastic wrapping on the CD I have to review, trying to get the damn stuff off, that I found myself virtually shaking with rage and had to go and make a nice cup of tea to calm down, and then the phone rang, and then the plastic was still on the bloody disc, and...

OK, OK, I exaggerate. In fact, my copy is late because I am still agonising over what to say about the recording's content. But I do wonder: what is the earthly use of wrapping CD boxes in clear plastic which then has to be removed and, crucially, "thrown away"?

Given the state of my study bin, I can't imagine the state of CD-wrapper landfill sites. Add to that the amount of the stuff that results from a single trip to the supermarket - plastic packaging, sometimes several layers of it, around everything from apples to avocados, from gluten-free biscuits to cat food - and the situation becomes ludicrous, because it is so unnecessary, and so desperately damaging.

This business with the CD wrappers has been going on for as long as CDs have existed - so 35-odd years. I don't think much of the so-called 'jewel cases' either - rarely does one enter the house via the post unbroken, and the little teeth that hold the middle of the disc in place have a way of breaking off and falling under the desk, where your hoover's 'crevice nozzle' might pick them up if you're lucky, and you have to hope they don't jam up the machine's mechanism on their way in. They end up in the same landfill, I expect, but inside a hoover bag.

We don't need this. What's the answer? Streaming doesn't pay the right people enough yet - though the new copyright directive may help - so is not as sustainable a solution as we'd like. But there are different ways of designing and making CD covers. Some companies have been finding alternatives for quite a while, but not enough of them. Plain, recyclable, non-plastic cardboard and paper would be a good solution - just like the old LP sleeves with the inner, paper jacket around the record. I've been wondering for years why this hasn't made a comeback in smaller form. If you need to ensure the thing is closed, there are means to do that too: a spot of glue; a pretty red ribbon; a length of decorative but tough string. (Any cat will tell you that a cardboard box takes a lot of beating - to say nothing of string, of course).

Dear record companies, please ensure you make some progress on this sooner rather than later.

Now I must return to that CD review and try to say something tactful about the tenor. Over and out.

Update: for more on why we must phase out plastic, read Gaby Hinsliff here.

Friday, October 19, 2018


Tomorrow, Saturday, in central London, the biggest anti-Brexit march ever is taking place. Starting at noon in Park Lane and ending with a rally in Parliament Square. People are coming in from all over the country to be part of it.

Some friends have said to me "I'm not going because it won't make any difference and they won't listen to us...". To which I can only respond: I understand, but that is not a reason not to go. Everyone who can go needs to be there. A million+ people on the streets of central London yelling that we want to save our youngsters' futures, and our own, can't go wholly unremarked by the rest of the world - though the only people who seem not to understand how desperately dangerous the current situation is are our own government.

Think about it. At present, the Northern Ireland boundary issue looks insurmountable, given the different directions the various pressure groups (DUP, 'ERG' etc) are pulling Theresa May. The chances of a "No Deal" Brexit are growing every day. If that happens and we crash out on 29 March, what happens?

-- The entire network of EU legislation that underpins how everything in this country connects to everywhere else in Europe ceases functioning.

-- Therefore: planes grounded, Eurostar grounded, massive lorry tailbacks at the ports, rotting produce, food and medicine shortages to follow.

-- The cost of matters such as visas, 'carnets' for travelling orchestras/bands, importing, exporting, transporting, everything, will go up.

-- The pound will crash and we won't be able to afford to go to Europe even if we want to.

-- Businesses will not be able to bear the extra costs and will start going bust quite soon.

-- People will lose their jobs.

-- Unemployment will soar and social security costs with it, while the exchequer takings plummet.

-- We lose all our financial input from the EU, which helps to support the poorest regions of the UK, which are some of the poorest in the whole of Europe.

-- The rest of the world, which thinks correctly that we are insane, will carry on without us. We won't be able to compete because a) we will be at a financial disadvantage, to put it mildly, and b) we are just too much trouble. Jobs for musicians in, for instance, European orchestras won't actually be closed to us, but if we need work permits to take them up, it will be very much easier for them to choose someone from one of the 27 members states if possible.

-- By the same token, we won't be able to attract top talent to the UK - because why would anyone want to come here?

-- Any business that relies on rapid transport time without travel red tape is going to be up shit creek without a paddle, opera included.

-- They are stealing our rights. Ending freedom of movement means ending OUR freedom of movement.

There is NO mandate for this. The vote was gerrymandered so that the people most affected by it were not able to vote (Brits living in Europe). We don't need to remind you of the lies and cheating of the Leave campaign. Many Leave voters of the older generation have died since 2016. Many young people have reached voting age and are aghast at the wholesale excision of their futures. Britain does not favour Brexit.

Britain would, actually, quite like not to fall apart in six months' time.

If you don't care about this, what the heck will you care about? Be there! Join us!

Please march with us!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Finding Stanford: the road to victory

You know...when you go to the Last Night of the Proms and fall abruptly in love with a composer you know of, but don't know well, wonder where he (in this case) has been all your life, and then someone offers you a guest post by the world expert on that composer about a rare work that's he's just unearthed and edited? It is with great delight that I welcome Professor Jeremy Dibble to JDCMB with his chronicle of preparing Charles Villiers Stanford's Mass Via Victrix 1914-1918, Op.173 - the composer's personal response to the First World War - for its world premiere complete performance on 27 October. The concert will be recorded for broadcast on BBC R3 later, and a commercial recording is in the works for next year. Thank you, Professor Dibble! JD

Stanford’s Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173 

A guest post by Professor Jeremy Dibble

Born in Dublin in 1852, Charles Villiers Stanford was born into a community of brilliant Anglo-Irishmen in the mid-nineteenth century. A student of classics and an organ scholar at Cambridge, he was mentored by Sterndale Bennett and Joseph Joachim which led to further musical training in Leipzig and Berlin. An apprenticeship in the organ lofts of St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals in Dublin were also formatively important for his appointment as organist of Trinity College, Cambridge, a position he held from 1873 until 1892.

Stanford’s great originality as a composer of church music undoubtedly owes much to this time. But by the time he was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal College of Music in 1883, he was already the accomplished author of an opera performed in Hannover, two symphonies, chamber music, choral music and songs, and by 1888, when he became Professor of Music at Cambridge, he had composed two further operas, his ‘Irish’ Symphony Op. 28 (much admired by Hans Richter) and an oratorio for the 1885 Birmingham Festival.

After resigning from Trinity in 1892 he was able to concentrate on his commitments as a teacher and conductor. In London he directed the Bach Choir, and later, in Leeds, the Philharmonic Society. From 1901 until 1910 he was the artistic director of the Leeds Festival for which he wrote many of his best choral works including the Songs of the Sea Op. 91 (1904), the Stabat Mater Op. 96 (1907) and the Songs of the Fleet Op. 117 (1910).

Although we tend to associate Stanford with choral music, and particularly with works written for the Anglican liturgy, he was an extraordinarily versatile composer across a wide range of musical genres – indeed, his greatest aspiration was to be a successful composer of opera, though, beset with disappointments, this hope largely eluded him.

During the First World War Stanford found himself in straitened financial circumstances and this situation did not improve after the war was over. In need of work and royalties, he gained some income from the composition of anthems, and music for the piano and organ. His large-scale works were, however, turned down by publishers who were more receptive to a new generation of British composers. Among these items were two fine string quartets, the tone poem A Song of Agincourt Op. 168 , the Violin Concerto No. 2 Op. 162, the Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 171, the Concert Piece for Organ and Orchestra Op. 181 and the Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ Op. 173.

I have known of the Mass ‘Via Victrix’ for many years and became familiar with its pages while carrying out research for my book on Stanford (published in 2002). Boosey published the vocal score; this was part of the normal process for choral works. The publishers would reap their profits from the sale of multiple vocal scores, but the full score, far too expensive to publish, would be available usually in a copyist’s hand.

One of the major obstacles which prevented the performance of the Mass in the past is that no orchestral parts existed. Stanford directed a performance of the ‘Gloria’ movement of the Mass at a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge on 15 June 1920 in a concert of music by Cambridge composers (which included music by Cyril Rootham, Vaughan Williams, Charles Wood, Alan Gray, Hubert Parry (on whom was conferred an Hon. Mus.D in 1883), E. W. Naylor, in honour of the newly-installed Chancellor and music-lover, Arthur Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour. The concert was also attended by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and Lord Robert Cecil, one of the architects of the League of Nations. The performance of the ‘Gloria’ may have had an auspicious audience, but it was only with organ.

Stanford around 1887
Stanford died in March 1924 and so never heard the Mass performed complete as the concert work he envisaged with orchestra. When Adrian Partington expressed an interest in BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales performing the work (on 27 October the soloists are soprano Kiandra Howarth, contralto Jess Dandy, tenor Ruairi Bowen and bass Gareth Brynmor John) to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, I mentioned that it would be necessary to make a performing score of the work from the autograph manuscript now in the British Library.

When this was agreed with the BBC, I undertook the making up of a modern performing edition, using both the manuscript and the published vocal score, ironing out inconsistencies and variants, mistranspositions, missing accidentals, as well as artistic details which changed between the orchestration of the work and the publication of the vocal score – a change of harmony here, an alteration in underlay there.

Over the years I have become familiar with many of Stanford’s autographs and, as one becomes accustomed to the style of handwriting and notation, one feels carried along by the hand of genius, a brilliant architect and orchestrator - a master of his craft. Stanford produced a substantial corpus of choral works of varying proportions and across a range of choral genres. We have still to acquaint ourselves with his two major oratorios for Birmingham – The Three Holy Children Op. 22 (1885) and Eden Op. 40 (1891) and there are still works such as the Elegiac Ode Op. 21 (1884), The Voyage of Maeldune Op. 34 (1889) and the Choral Overture Ave Atque Vale Op. 114 (1908) which I am sure will reveal new seams of gold in Stanford’s remarkable imagination when it comes to the setting of voices.

Among the pillars of his output, however, are undoubtedly the Requiem Op. 63 which he wrote for Birmingham in 1897 (which Stanford played privately for Elgar when the two were friends in Malvern) and the Te Deum Op. 66 of 1898 which he wrote for the Leeds Festival. Both use forces of four soloists and combine Stanford’s flair for symphonic music with his love and instinct for the theatre.

Deploying these same forces, and with even greater operatic verve, Stanford composed his Stabat Mater for the Leeds Festival in 1907, a work of extraordinary theatrical vividness in which the theology and emotions of the Christian faith are shaped into a compelling opera-manchée. Perhaps aware of the awesome worldly challenge of writing a work to commemorate the end of the First World War, Stanford turned to the immutable text of the five movements of the ordinary of the mass as a means of expressing a range of universal emotions – the thanksgiving for victory, relief for those who had been spared, the sense of sacrifice, and the memory of those who had died (as articulated in the mass’s dedication ‘Transiuerunt per ignem et aquam et eduxisti in refrigerium’ [here Stanford was probably quoting from Psalm 66 v. 12 [KJV] - “We went through fire and water, but thou broughtest us out into a wealthy place.”)

Each movement was conceived on a symphonic scale using the same forces as the Requiem, Te Deum and Stabat Mater. The Kyrie is deeply melancholy, in the manner of a funeral cortège. The two most extended movements – the Gloria and the Credo – are highly dramatic in their changes of mood and tempo while the Sanctus (a slow movement) is a tripartite structure with the Benedictus at its centre.

The Agnus Dei, a solemn tribute to those who sacrificed their lives, builds on the drama of the Requiem in that it is essentially a Funeral March. At the beginning of the movement, the music of the Kyrie is recalled, but the original cortège music is replaced by a moving threnody for solo soprano with viola obbligato. This forms the outer sections of a ternary form whose dramatic funeral march for orchestra alone constitutes the ‘trio’. The closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’ incorporates an allusion to the final bars of the ‘Gloria’, though, before the celestial coda – a translucent suffusion of F major – the soprano soloist’s dramatic reiteration of ‘Agnus Dei’ on the Neapolitan (again in the manner of opera) comes as a fervent supplication to the world in the name of peace.

The BBCNOW and chorus in Hoddinott Hall
Photo: Kirsten McTernan

The Mass ‘Via Victrix 1914-1918’ occupies a unique place in Stanford’s output in that it makes conscious reference to an earlier work. Not one normally given to the quotation of his own music, he evidently felt that the powerful sense of redemption expressed in the mass’s dedication and in his Stabat Mater justified the quotation of the ‘redemption’ theme from the latter (the ‘redemption’ theme is first presented as the second subject of the overture) in both the Credo (at the point of Christ’s burial) and the Benedictus (where it functions as a cantus firmus in a contemporary interpretation of the eighteenth-century chorale prelude). Stanford’s Mass, along with his Requiem, are in fact rare examples of British concert masses (in contradistinction to liturgical settings by Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Darke, Howells and others). 

Ethel Smyth’s somewhat elongated Mass in D of 1891 lies at the vanguard of the few settings there are in the repertoire, but Stanford’s Mass ‘Via Victrix’ is surely one of the finest indigenous examples couched in the tradition of the nineteenth-century symphonic genre (comparable with those of Beethoven, Hummel, Rossini, Puccini, Bruckner, and Dvořák).

However, as a ‘war’ mass, it occupies an even rarer position in British music of the twentieth century and predates the hybrid works of John Fould’s A War Requiem (1919-1921) and Benjamin Britten’s A War Requiem (1961-2) which use the text of the Requiem Mass together with poetry from other sources.

And what of the future for Stanford’s mass? Though it is undoubtedly a personal response to the First World War, there is no reason, given the neutral and more universal nature of the genre, why it could not serve as a piece for other solemn occasions, particularly at the time of the Armistice. Moreover, as a symphonic concert mass, it contains music of a high order which could easily stand alone on its own musical terms.

My hope is also, that, with the prospect of a commercial recording on the Lyrita label for release in 2019, the mass will take on a new life after a century of neglect and that it will contribute yet further to our fuller comprehension and appreciation of one of this country’s most brilliant and versatile composers.

 © Jeremy Dibble 2018

BBC National Orchestra of Wales perform the first complete performance of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix on 27 October at BBC Hoddinott Hall, conducted by Adrian Partington. It will also be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in early November. Booking here.