Monday, June 29, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Here are my notes for last night's KSO concert. It's all about the facial hair. I had something about Strauss's moustache in the first draft, but my editor made me cut it out. "You're just doing that to amuse yourself," she said. Well, it's a fair cop.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Froissart – Concert Overture, Op.19
Elgar’s public image – the tweed suit, the extravagant moustache, the very image of the establishment country gent – was assiduously cultivated. He did this so successfully that the most popular idea of him today is still the gruff patriot, churning out tunes to wave flags by. The reality was rather different. To be born a Catholic in the provinces was the mark of an outsider in Victorian England. It took years of struggle and disappointment before he achieved his status as England’s foremost composer.
Froissart is an early work. It was commissioned by the Worcester Festival, but actually composed in London. Elgar had moved there with his new wife Alice in 1889 hoping to make his mark, but he struggled to make an impact. He had to commute back to Malvern to earn money teaching the violin, and the arrival of his first child put further strain on his finances. At one stage he was forced to pawn Alice’s pearls. Disillusioned, he retreated to Malvern in 1891, and would not return to London for a decade. Despite these misfortunes surrounding its composition, he retained affection for the piece in later years.
The overture is named for the medieval French writer Jean Froissart. Froissart worked as a merchant and a clerk before he became the court poet and historian to Philippa of Hainault, the consort of Edward III. His Chronicles, written as he travelled round England, Scotland, Wales, France, Flanders and Spain, are one of the most important contemporary records of the period leading up to the Hundred Years’ War.
Froissart’s value as a reliable historian is disputed, but what appealed to Victorian England was his depiction of the values of chivalry. Rather than any specific event, Elgar evokes the spirit of dashing nobility. The score is prefaced with a quotation from Keats that sums up the Romantic enthusiasm for this ideal: “When Chivalry lifted up her lance on high.”
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Horn Concerto No.2 in E flat
1. Allegro – Andante con moto
2. Rondo (Allegro molto)
In 1945 an old man walked down the stairs of his country retreat with his hands up and surrendered to the American soldiers who had entered with the words, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier and Salome.” He cut a very different figure to the young turk who had scandalised early 20th century audiences with dissonant operas on such scandalous subjects as Salome. The First World War swept aside the certainties of nineteenth-century Europe, and almost overnight the former leading modernist found himself out of step with the times. As the younger generation scandalised Viennese ears with such horrors as atonality and jazz, Strauss assumed the mantle of Establishment: conservative, safe and above all respectable.
It was rather unfortunate that over the next twenty years the Establishment took a turn for the worse as Hitler came to power. Probably more through naivety than anything else, Strauss decided that he could stand apart from politics. Not everyone agreed with this stance. The nature and morality of Strauss’s relationship with the Nazis continues to provoke heated debate even today. The works of his last years are marked by a conspicuous sense of retreat from a world that had left him far behind.
Strauss wrote his first concerto for horn as a young man for his father to perform (the elder Strauss declared it too difficult), and his second, part of the remarkable fecundity of his last years, was written as a tribute to his memory. He only intended it to be performed once, and that is reflected in its absolute straightforwardness of mood. Barely a hint of the war that raged as he wrote it in 1942 is to be heard. Beyond the occasional moment that hints of darker things, the concerto exists largely in a Mozartean utopia, the hunting calls that abound perhaps an echo of an imagined past when life was more chivalrous, less complicated.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
1. Allegro con brio
3. Poco allegretto
Like Elgar, Brahms hid a complex personality behind a construct of gruffness, sturdy suits and facial hair. He was immensely self-conscious about his place in musical history, and went to great lengths to make sure that as little as possible of his life became public knowledge. But the crusty image of “Herr Doktor Brahms” belies a life born in grinding poverty. His teenage years were spent playing piano in brothels to make ends meet, where he was subject to abuse of all kinds. He was irrevocably scarred by his early experiences. He felt deeply lonely, yet incapable of allowing himself any great intimacy. He was notorious for his caustic wit and an exasperating combination of misanthropy and self-pity. “I have no friends!” he would often exclaim in later life (to his friends).
By the time he came to write his third symphony, the blue-eyed, handsome youth had long since disappeared beneath the façade. He was held up as the figurehead of the conservative opposition to the revolutionary music of Wagner and his followers. This was not a position he sought or welcomed, despite his reservations about the Wagnerian cult. He remarked acidly on more than one occasion that he understood Wagner’s music far better than any of his most rabid acolytes. But as the pre-eminent composer of symphonies and chamber music in a world dominated by Wagner’s ideas of the “Total Art Work”, he felt himself to be the last of a line.
In 1883 Brahms was about to celebrate his 50th birthday. He was, after Wagner’s death early that year, indisputably the foremost composer in Germanic culture. Not that his mind was entirely focussed on his artistic reputation. He was in the grip of one of his perennial infatuations, in this case a young singer called Hermine Spies. An outpouring of vocal music followed. His decision to take his summer holiday in Wiesbaden rather than his customary destination of Bad Ischl may not have been unconnected with the fact that she was there during that summer. What if anything went on is a matter for conjecture: this is one of those episodes that Brahms was more successful in removing from record. But in a light and airy country house in sight of the Rhine, as luxurious, he claimed, “as if I were trying to imitate Wagner”, he began his third symphony.
Brahms more than almost any other composer resists interpretation, but there are clues as to the influence of extra-musical thoughts. The opening three chords derive from a cipher. His friend and early champion, the violinist Joseph Joachim, had a motto: the notes F-A-E, standing for “Frei aber einsam” [free but lonely]. Brahms rejoined with F-A-F, meaning “Frei aber Froh” [free but happy]. This arresting opening plunges us deep into the current of the Rhine – almost literally, as the main theme is adapted from the Rhenish Symphony of another of Brahms’ friends from his youth, Robert Schumann.
These associations ran deep for Brahms. Both Joachim and Schumann had provided crucial support early in his career. There were less happy memories too. He had fallen out with Joachim three years earlier over the latter’s divorce, and it is perhaps significant that Brahms’s first attempt at a rapprochement would be to ask Joachim to conduct the Berlin premiere of the Third Symphony. Schumann loomed large in Brahms’s life beyond his role as mentor. As the elder composer succumbed to madness and died in an asylum, Brahms fell head over heels in love with his wife, the great pianist Clara Schumann. Whether these feelings were consummated is still a subject of speculation, but she was undoubtedly the great love of his life. The presence of these motifs in the symphony suggest that thoughts of his past must have been present, and to be thinking of his lost friends and lost loves while he was pursuing the young contralto must have been a source of much soul-searching. The overall mood of the opening movement is heroic, but it is heroism undermined by instability: the rhythms and harmonies are in constant flux.
The middle two movements are more subdued and introverted. The second begins restfully enough, but there is a melancholic undertow. The third movement’s exquisitely yearning main theme made it an instant hit at early performances. In those days when no one worried about whether or not to clap between movements, it was often encored.
The finale begins quietly and tensely before erupting. Elements of the previous movements are woven into the design, which seems to be striving towards a heroic conclusion. Brahms often takes a moment in his finales to reflect before he races for an affirmative ending. But on this occasion things take an unexpected turn. The ensuing valediction nods towards Wagner, and reveals the opening theme’s true nature. It would be an unthinkable way to conclude such monumental music had Brahms not done it and made it seem so right.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Sunday, June 14, 2009
We arrived on the South Bank shortly after 11.00. We scouted about a bit and eventually decided to pitch ourselves under a tree just near where that big purple E4 cow is at the moment. While we waited for the others to arrive, Em and I entertained ourselves, if no-one else, with our ukes and our singing. We learned that Innocent When You Dream, while a lovely song, is a bit maudlin to attract money. Downtown and Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue work much better in this regard. Even if you struggle to remember the words.
By the time the rest of our band started to arrive at about 11.30, the walkway was considerably busier, and if we'd showed up then instead of 20 minutes earlier we'd have struggled to find a place to set up amidst the other buskers, balloon modellers, pavement artists and talking plant pots that now surrounded us. Undaunted, we set up, and ploughed into In C.
It's an amazing experience, playing this music. All the difficulties of playing the patterns that I'd found practising earlier in the week seemed to melt away, and the web of cross rhythms that rapidly built up as utterly absorbing (I hope it was half as fascinating to listen to!). It's immensely satisfying to play. It's something to do with the autonomy. What you play, and how, and when, is up to you, and it's thrilling to find all sorts of unexpected combinations emerging as a result of your decisions. You get into the groove, and play around, reacting to what the other musicians are doing, they reacting to you in turn. Kudos to Nick who hammered out repeated Cs on a toy glockenspiel that looked like a relic from East Berlin before the wall came down. That gave us something to hang onto, when all the cross rhythms threatened to overwhelm.
In C is in one sense mis-named: it's not in the key of C major in any conventional sense. There's no progression of harmony as you'd find in a tonal work. Although the harmonies do evolve as it progresses, it's got little to do with traditional functional harmony. It's about texture and pure sound. And this is where the title has its true meaning. That C major triad, and the play around it, is something you inhabit.
It was a blast. Thanks to everyone who played, held out hats, listened and gave money. The whole 45 minutes or so was filmed, so I hope to add YouTube links soon!
Friday, June 12, 2009
"it is more expensive," said the man in the shop as I contemplated the £7 rubber practice mute or the £25 (shiny!) metal one. "But - I play violin, and I find with the rubber one the sound's quite fuzzy. with the metal one you get more clarity of tone."
Easy decision, then. I bought the rubber one. Sounds much more interesting.
Monday, June 08, 2009
God bless London Transport. Having offered Musequality pitches at Southwark tube station for Sunday (which we eagerly snapped up), they turned round and announced that that part of the Jubilee Line will be closed (again) then. So we're now looking for somewhere to do In C again.
It'll all be worth it in the end.
If you want to join in, email me: petemaskreplica[at]gmail[dot]com
Sunday, June 07, 2009
Sometimes an idea just needs the right context.
I've been thinking about Terry Riley's In C for a while now. It's a seminal piece, of course - it helped kick-start a huge sea change in musical style, the effects of which are still evident today. But the thing about it that's been lingering in my mind isn't a question of style or compositional technique - it's its social significance.
This is where it departs from so-called classical music most importantly, I think. The way you approach it as a musician is quite different to how you'd approach, say, a symphony by Brahms or Mahler. For one thing, it doesn't ask for any specific scoring. Whatever instruments are available play. There's therefore no hierarchy . Everyone plays the same notes, in whatever register suits their on instrument (or voice). Immediately Riley has removed a social structure. There are no issues of being first or second fiddle, no "extras" who get paid differently, no joking about the competence of certain instruments, because they're playing the same as you. Everyone comes to the table as an equal.
Connected this is the responsibility that every player carries. It's not simply a matter of counting the bars rest until the conductor brings you in. There's no conductor at all, in fact (although there may be someone pounding out repeated Cs to help everyone keep time). How the piece goes depends on what you do, in a way more fundamental than in traditional orchestral music. If you don't do what you're old to do in a symphony then you're wrong. There's no "wrong" as such in In C. But that's not to say it doesn't matter what you play. It matters a great deal - it's just that you have to decide for yourself how you play, when you play, and must consider carefully the consequences of what you play on everyone else.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
It's redundant to dissect a performance of Feldman's music in a way: Not that there isn't great skill and musicianship needed to bring it off, but the music itself places itself so far outside the traditional notion of "performance" that it's very difficult to say anything of the performers beyond the bare facts that they turned up, played the notes, and had the stamina and concentration to get through the hour and a half (in this case) that the piece takes to play.
So at the risk of seeming to damn with faint praise (I don't mean to), I should say straight off that the three members of Endymion who performed "Crippled Symmetry" at Kings Place on Friday night turned up, played the notes and demonstrated the requisite stamina with aplomb. The thing is, this is music that one one level isn't about the performers at all, and yet on another is absolutely about them. The extreme duration, and the demands of playing so softly and slowly (much more tiring than playing fast, busy music) mean that it's all about the physical and mental stamina needed to maintain concentration. And yet the music itself demands the players to abandon the normal ideas of self-expression. Feldman's music lies beyond ideas of expression. It simply is.
This removing of theatrical display or gesture, the creation of what you might call a flat surface, like the canvases of his friend Mark Rothko, with whose work his has much in common, doesn't lead to an uninvolving experience though. The reduction of everything to the minimum actually makes the smallest detail assume immense significance. So it is that the flute's tonal pallor comes to seem sharp and piercing in contrast to its bigger, softer sibling, the bass flute. And the glockenspiel and piano likewise acquire a brighter presence next to their more muted doubles, vibraphone and celesta.
"Crippled Symmetry" is one of the few Feldman works to carry a title other than the names of the instruments it's written for. It's a title that could apply to most all of his work though: the small patterns that almost, but don't quite repeat. The sense of stillness that conceals enormous movement: like a glacier, it appears from moment to moment to be static, but in fact is moving with a power that can cut through mountains.
Feldman's music makes no claim to "meaning" beyond the fact if its existence and the actions that bring it into existence. But that doesn't make it meaningless. It simply makes that meaning something so vast that it can't be expressed in any terms than the sounds that make it. It's something best experienced live rather than on record. In your living room there are too many distractions. This demands, and deserves, your full and undivided attention. That's not easy over such a long span of time. It's music that conveys and demands quiet courage, for both its performers and audience.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Musequality is a charity that deserves your support. Go and read about them.
then go and read about the World Busk they're organising between the 8th and 14th june.
Then go to my Just Giving page and sponsor me for the exciting thing I'm doing to help raise money: On Sunday 14th June at about 11.45 I and a crack team of, er, people I know will be busking through Terry Riley's In C.
I shall write about this more later when I've got time. For now, go on, donate!
(If you'd like to join in the band, email me: petemaskreplica [at] gmail [dot] com. I've still got a few spaces left.)