Thursday, January 29, 2009

KSO Programme notes: 28 January 2009

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Pelléas et Mélisande, Op.80

1. Prélude

2. Fileuse

3. Sicilienne

4. Mort de Mélisande

Maurice Maeterlinck's symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande has been a source of inspiration for a number of composers: in the wake of Debussy's opera, Schoenberg, Sibelius and Cyril Scott all composed works on the subject. Before any of these eminent modernists turned their attentions to the subject, however, Gabriel Fauré's score composed for the first performance of the play in English in London in 1898 gained the distinction of being the first music inspired by the drama to be heard in public.

Fauré was overworked at the time and so entrusted his pupil Charles Koechlin with the orchestration of the music. Fauré himself subsequently revised three movements for a larger orchestra in 1901, and the addition in 1909 of the famous Sicilienne completed the four movement suite that we hear tonight.

The circumstances of the work may seem unlikely, but Fauré made several attempts to establish himself in London. However, he never managed to impress the English as much as did his titled contemporary Dr Edvard Grieg. Indeed, the reception of his music was decidedly lukewarm: "It is scarcely satisfactory, being wanting alike in charm and in dramatic power… its continued absence of tangible form, not to speak of its actual ugliness at many points, is such as to disturb rather than assist the illusion of the scene," wrote the Times.

Such sniffy judgements were not uncommon for a composer who was and often still is dismissed as a purveyor of lightweight salon songs. But this is to misunderstand how his music works. Those looking for lurid expressions of breast-beating despair in the death of Mélisande, for instance, will be disappointed. Fauré's music eschews melodrama, and prefers to make its point in more undemonstrative, subtly shaded ways. Its exquisitely attractive surface should not blind the listener to its great subtlety and originality, an art that conceals itself. Often seen as a marginal figure of the late nineteenth century, Fauré really deserves to take his place as a farsighted figure of the early twentieth century, whose influence, through such composers as his contemporary Satie and his favourite pupil Ravel, has persisted through a significant strand of the past century; rarely if ever drawing attention to itself, but there nevertheless.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61

1. Allegro ma non troppo

2. Larghetto

3. Rondo. Allegro

Franz Clement, the dedicatee and first performer of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, is a man recalled by some with horror. At the concert in December 1806 when he gave the first performance, rather than play the whole concerto through in one go he performed the first movement in the first half of the concert and the remaining two in the second half. In between he interspersed a number of other pieces, including a set of variations of his own composing, played on one string with the violin held upside down, before continuing with the remaining two movements of Beethoven's piece.

A little perspective is required. Those who complain po-facedly about this sullying of the concerto's artistry would do well to remember the dedication to Clement that Beethoven scrawled on the manuscript, which consists mainly of a tortuous pun on the violinist's "clemency". Beethoven clearly saw no contradiction between the expression of divine ideas and a cheap joke, and there is no reason why we should be troubled by such things.

That Clement performed the concerto at sight with no rehearsal may be true or may be a tale put about to bolster his reputation as a technical master, but Beethoven certainly finished the concerto very late. Again, though, this was not such an unusual situation as it appears to us. Late into the nineteenth century, virtuosi such as Liszt were accustomed to rolling into whichever town was next on their tour itinerary and only then organising concert dates and assembling the necessary local musicians to form an orchestra. Spontaneity was the order of the day, and if we like to believe we treat this music with more reverence we might also consider what we have lost in the process.

Although now one of his most loved pieces, the Violin Concerto remained relatively unknown until Joseph Joachim took it into his repertoire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until then it was more likely to be heard on a very different instrument: as a violin concerto was not an enormously sellable genre, Beethoven rewrote the solo part for piano.

The concerto is unusual for Beethoven in its overall feeling of sublime calm, which is not to say that there is not plenty of drama to be had in the vast opening movement, which is filled with incident and surprises. The second movement is so filled with rapturous stillness that it takes a sudden and violent interjection to dispel the mood and prepare for the energetic finale, whose joyfulness and cheeky touches (including the soloist's only two plucked notes in the entire piece) remind us that humour and profundity can make perfectly happy bedfellows.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Symphony No.3 in C major, Op.52

1. Allegro moderato

2. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto

3. Moderato - Allegro ma non tanto

The early years of the twentieth century were a busy time for Sibelius. After years of struggle he was finally establishing his name as a composer, and conductors such as Toscanini and Henry Wood were performing his works. The English were taking to his music particularly, and so it was natural that he should be invited to visit the country by another prominent (though now half-forgotten) musician, Granville Bantock, who conducted the British première of Sibelius's First Symphony in March 1905 during the composer's stay.

England's appeal to Sibelius may not have been entirely unconnected with Bantock's generous hospitality, so lavish that Sibelius declared that he "never made the acquaintance of English coinage." While such attentions were understandably welcome and helped smooth the way for the Royal Philharmonic Society's proposal that he should bring his planned third symphony to England in 1907, there is a dark undercurrent: Sibelius had a drink problem, and such unconstrained bonhomie cannot have helped matters. His new publisher Robert Lienau's desire for more new works was an unwelcome pressure, and drove him further into the bottle. Progress on the new symphony was therefore slow, and the Society had to wait until February 1908 for its première. Bantock conducted, and Sibelius expressed his gratitude by dedicating the symphony to him. A pattern had been set, and Sibelius's subsequent career would be characterised by increasing self-doubt, struggles with alcoholism and consequent procrastination.

The Third Symphony represents a new maturity in Sibelius's style. Gone is the romanticism of the first two symphonies. In its place is a new, pared down sound, restrained in its emotions and textures. The moderately-sized orchestra that Sibelius uses could not be more in contrast to prevailing fashions in 1908 – Mahler had recently produced his Eighth Symphony, the "Symphony of a Thousand" whose extravagantly large forces were much more in tune with mainstream tastes. It is interesting to note that one of the few other composers defying fashion at this time was Schoenberg, whose Chamber Symphony is similarly a reaction against the overblown excesses of late Romantic music. Within a decade, the First World War would put an end to large orchestras (not least through the wholesale slaughter of thousands of young men who might otherwise have taken up the profession) and stripped-down neoclassicism would become the trend. Sibelius's music stands apart from these trends though. He is not interested in the ironic recycling of archaic clichés, but taking the principles of symphonic thought as the starting point for something entirely new. When Sibelius and Mahler met, around the time that the Third Symphony was being composed, their differences were encapsulated in Sibelius's declared fascination with the possibilities of creating symphonies bound together by intricate relationships between all the musical ideas and motifs, and Mahler's insistence that "the symphony must be like the world: it must embrace everything!" He did not see that Sibelius's approach could create the sense of an entire world just as effectively as his own, more diffuse structures.

The Third Symphony is in only three movements: The first movement's quietly vigorous opening opens out into bright cold sunlight, tempered by Nordic melancholy. Then a withdrawn, will o' the wisp of an intermezzo precedes a finale that starts fleet-footedly before mutating into a noble conclusion. It is often said that the way Sibelius constructs his music is by taking scraps and building up themes from them. This is precisely how the last movement of this symphony works – but it is in fact the only movement in all Sibelius's symphonies where this happens.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Mother's 8-Baby Delivery Surprise"

...screeched the headlines at me as I fought my way down the Euston Road, swatting free-paper-hawkers left and right.

Eight babies? Eight?! How on earth can you be unaware that you're carrying octuplets? I don;t have a womb myself, but I can't help thinking that if I did I'd notice if it was that crowded. Did the mother just think she was constipated for nine months? Or was she so busy gorging on burgers and Mars bars that it didn't occur to her that there might be another reason for the sudden and dramatic weight gain?

Closer inspection reveals that the woman in question was perfectly awarer condition, and in fact that seven of the arrivals were expected. Only the eighth (sentimentally named "H" by the doctors) was a surprise. Suddenly it all seems much more reasonable. I suppose if you're a hard-pressed gynaecologist you might easily give up counting after the fourth or fifth body shows up on the ultrasound.

Still, eight babies. Are they very small? Or is the mother some kind of Titan? As no mention is mad of her extraordinary volume I can only assume she is now the proud matriarch of a tribe of Tom Thumbs, who will grow up to wear dolls' clothes and fear cats more than most children.

One person who will have been very happy at the news is her bank manager,who must be rubbing his hands with delight at the prospect of the interest she'll pay on the kind of overdraft you need to finance raising octuplets. Perhaps we'll salute her in years to come as the person who singlehandedly unblocked the international flow of currency.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Happy Birthday, Don

Monday, January 12, 2009

What's next?

Oh, you didn't think there was actually going to be a part 12, did you? Pff.

Anyway, poor quality pastiche be damned. I have determined that 2009 will be the year when slightly crazy plans are brought to fruition.

In particular, something to do with environments and participation, and something to do with time. A lot of time.

And something to do with a bunch of 19th century composers behaving badly.

More clues later. Gotta go chase the next deadline now.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Farewell My Cadence (11)

Mr Cage had made a lot of sense at the time, but the next day it didn't seem like I could get a handle on, or even remember, any of it - it was as though the guy had said nothing at all. The mushroom omelette was great, but it was repeating on me. And there'd been enough repetition in this case. It was time to cut to the chase. There was this guy I'd heard whispers about, Greg, they called him the Pontiff. Seems he'd gotten everything written down. That had to be the break I needed. I knew I was getting close to my man, close enough to smell, and it didn't smell pretty. Just one more step and I'd be there. That last twelfth step. Yup, I'd find the answer there alright...

Saturday, January 03, 2009

farewell My Cadence (9)

I woke on the floor. What happened?

The musician. Strange, everything he said seemed from a script. It was repeating my suspicions It knew the story well, the rest not at all. 15 or 20 to get the full picture, it seemed.

It wasn't so exciting third time, but he assured me it was the urtext, so I accepted and moved on.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Farewell My Cadence (8)

I came to in a heap on the floor, and not an attractive one. What happened?

The musician happened. It had been a weird night, he had plenty to say, almost as much as he'd had to drink, which was almost as much as me. Kinda strange though, everything he said seemed right but false, as though he was reading from a script. It was when he started repeating himself that my suspicions were raised. It was like he knew part of the story well, pretty well, and the rest not at all. I'd need to talk to 30 or 40 of the guys to get the full picture, it seemed.

I had to move forward, but I couldn't help feeling I needed to speak to him again, maybe with a little less lubrication this time.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Farewell My Cadence (7)

I came to in a heap on the floor, and not a pretty one. What the hell happened?

Oh yeah, the musician. It had been a weird night, he had plenty to say, almost as much as he'd had to drink, which was almost as much as me. Kinda strange though, everything he said seemed right but false, as though he was reading from a script. It was when he started repeating himself that my suspicions were raised. It was like he knew part of the story well, really well, and the rest not at all. I'd need to talk to 60 or 70 of the guys to get the full picture, it seemed.

I had to move forward, but I couldn't help feeling I needed to speak to him again, maybe with a little less lubrication this time.