Reflection and calm

In the last couple of days, a number of people have asked me to seek out some music which will serve to silence any ugly triumphalism (happily not too much) as well as soothe those who have been shocked by recent events: it is quite a tall order, but one man comes to the rescue. And no, it is not Elgar. Despite a wealth of talented British composers, it is slightly surprising that there is no obvious piece of music among them which, in my view, can reconcile these two very opposing emotions.

Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, and as you read this, some of you are now going to be saying ‘Oh, he’s going for the last movement of the 9th’; but that would be tactless and only fuel the triumphant cause, since it is well known to be the European anthem. The second movement of his seventh symphony, however, used in countless films over the years (most recently and famously in ‘The King’s Speech’), fulfills the brief. It is not a slow movement, as was then conventional, but only slower than the one before and two after it: it is marked ‘Allegretto’, which means slightly lively. The symphony, with which Beethoven was himself well pleased, was composed around 1812, and first performed in 1813 infront of wounded Viennese soldiers. Beethoven conducted it, despite being almost totally deaf, telling those taking part that “We are moved by nothing but pure patriotism”, and this particular movement had to be repeated on the night, before Beethoven was allowed to continue with the rest of the symphony.

Apart from having a few beautiful melodies, it is the steady building of the different parts which serves to make this a really stirring piece of music. Some people think it is  sad – I do not agree. It is certainly moving and soothing, but also, I would argue, optimistic and forward-looking: feelings which I think both sides of the latest argument could do well to embrace. Imagine it in its original context and see if you can apply it to a similar division some two hundred years later. It is both healing and uplifting at the same time.

I don’t know if it’s just my reading of this, but as it closes, I sense we are left with something of a question mark in its final notes, which only affirms its appropriateness as I make this post. But if it’s any consolation, Richard Wagner referred to this symphony as “the apotheosis of the dance”, which will give you the strongest hint of how that question is answered. The two movements which follow are filled with some of the most joyful music ever written by Beethoven; but in the meantime, if you feel urged to want to hear this passage again, you will not be the first. Soothing, healing, uplifting: it’s what we all need just now.

A good way to start your day…

The next few minutes of music will be so familiar that I expect many of  you will wonder why I’m bothering with it at all.  There are several reasons why I have chosen the overture for Mozart’s opera ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. The first is to introduce the  concept of the overture as a standalone piece of music; the second is to alert you  to one of the greatest operas ever written; the third,  perhaps most importantly, is that this is a particularly fine recording, which reminds me of one of the best performances I ever saw of this – not a stage, but a concert one, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991.

Coming from the French word ‘ouverture ‘, meaning ‘opening’, an overture is simply a piece of music which precedes an oratorio or opera. In its early days, it had a practical use in Italian opera, as a means of informing audiences that a production was about to start and encouraging them to get to their seats and settle. Apart from the inevitable latecomer, modern audiences tend to be a little more prepared; which is just as well in this case, because to be a few minutes late when attending ‘Figaro’ would be to miss a gem of an overture. Unlike most overtures, where themes or characters of the opera are often introduced for the first time, this energetic passage is not a precursor to anything that follows. ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, first performed in 1786, is a lengthy comic opera, which can be hideously complicated to understand when reading through the synopsis for the first time, despite all the action taking place over a period of just one day. So I’m not even going to attempt to summarise it here, beyond saying that it was based on a play by Beaumarchais, which was banned in France because of its perceived encouragement to the lower classes to rise against their seniors: something which turned out to be rather prescient with the French Revolution only years away.

It is no exaggeration that the opera contains some of Mozart’s most exquisite music, of which he was himself proud, and I will select other golden moments in time. For now, just imagine your reaction as you sit down and hear this for the very first time: from the outset, you are immediately aware of some frenzied excitement. There is plenty of comedy in the opera, but at its heart is truth and frailty: the characters are real and their behaviour is credible. This recording of the overture is conducted by Sir Georg Solti (pronounced Sholti), who conducted it in that concert performance I attended at the Festival Hall. Solti’s temperament in rehearsal earned him the nickname of the ‘Screaming Scull’, but there is no denying the wonderful sound he extracts from his players – and it was under his stewardship that Covent Garden was awarded the title of ‘The Royal Opera’.

The late journalist, Bernard Levin, was also attending this concert, which reminded me of another trivial, but nonetheless practical, use he once suggested for this overture: taken at the right speed, it is the perfect egg-timer. If you like your boiled egg with a soft yolk and firm white, place it in cold water, bring to the boil; then play this recording, removing from the heat on the final chord. Obviously, if you prefer it firmer or hard-boiled, you can just play it again – or go for a slightly more pedestrian conductor (I couldn’t possibly say who) but that, in my view, would be to miss out on Solti’s vibrant and thrilling account.

Time for Brahms!

Of all the composers whose music I enjoy, none seems to fit into the ‘Marmite’ category quite so well as the German, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). I wonder if this is some strange reflection of the way he was received in his own lifetime: it is astonishing how vilified he was by so many composers whose lives crossed with him at some point. As far as I can see, only two contemporary musicians had any time for him, Robert and Clara Schumann, whose music will definitely be the subject of a future post; but Tchaikovsky was not alone in thinking him a ‘scoundrel’ – and a ‘giftless bastard’ to boot. (I beg to differ with his adjective, and his noun is factually incorrect.) Liszt, Bruckner, Berlioz, Wolf were all at odds with him, as, notably, was Richard Wagner. All of them resented his determination to hold on and advance the legacy of the Baroque and Classical masters, such as Bach and Beethoven, rather than push on into pastures new and avenues more adventurous. Happily he now has enough supporters to ensure that his music is widely played, even if it continues to divide opinion.

It is why I’ve always been amused by the irony that my father’s favourite composer was Wagner, while his favourite piece of music was Brahms’s ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’. He would often say to us that, on his demise, he would be greatly comforted in knowing that he’d arrived at the right place, if the first sounds he heard were that of the heavenly hosts greeting him with this piece. And so a year after that sad day, I want to share with you a movement from this Requiem, which was a smash hit when it was first performed in 1868, guaranteeing Brahms financial security for the rest of his life. When people hear the word ‘Requiem’, many instinctively (and reasonably) think of Faure, Mozart and Verdi, all ‘big hit’ numbers. Brahms’s, not written for the repose of the dead in the traditional Christian Latin, but in German with words from the Lutheran text, is a piece for the living, opening with the lines ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

At over an hour long, I cannot hope to keep your attention with all of it. But I haven’t shared any choral music with you yet, and I hope this will encourage you to listen to the rest of it another time, because it is has some ethereal melodies and dramatic moments. The movement here is ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’ (‘How lovely are thy dwellings ‘). It speaks of how ‘my soul requires and yearns for the courts of the Lord’. I mention this because you can really detect that longing in this recording, a tension which gives way to the calm and joyful knowledge of what those courts will promise. Semyon  Bychkov, the conductor, extracts wonderful diction, while never losing control of a beautiful mingling of voices, both with eachother and the orchestra.  I saw him conduct Verdi’s Requiem at the Albert Hall a few years ago, and it must have been a  full thirty or forty seconds before anyone dared to applaud at the end.

You will have surmised that I am a Brahms fan. If you aren’t, I am unlikely to convert you; but if you are new to his music, I hope you will warm to its heavenly and romantic nature.  I have my father to thank for introducing it to me, in whose memory I make this post today.



Another beauty…

The name of Kathleen Ferrier will be known to many music lovers, but my hunch is that it will be new to most who dip into this site from time to time. If you have not heard of her before, I am confident you will see why she was so adored in her tragically short life.

Ferrier was an English singer with a contralto voice. This is a lower range which we do not hear too often these days (I suppose Cecilia Bartoli comes closest at the moment), and at first listening it can seem slightly strange; but with each hearing, you get more and more hooked into something which is very rich, even a little dark, but velvety and so full of heart too. Once you have heard her, you will know her voice instantly the next time you encounter it: it is quite unlike anyone else’s.

The world of music was completely stunned when news of her death from cancer was announced in 1953, at the age of 41, not least because the true seriousness of her illness had been kept secret; and because, since her debut in Handel’s ‘Messiah’ at Westminster Abbey in 1947, she had enjoyed enormous popularity with both her voice and warm, humorous personality. She was not comfortable with the operatic scene, choosing only two roles in that field (Orfeo in Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’, and Lucretia in Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’), and concentrated her short career on the concert platform in Europe and especially London; notably in Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ (the only work by that Englishman I could not live without), and Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ (the one work in the entire classical repertoire which would always feature on my Desert Island list).

There is a good amount of recordings to choose from, but one of the things I enjoy is selecting pieces which are well known to us and then demonstrate that there is someone surprising who delivers it without equal. George Frederic Handel was born in Germany the same year as J S Bach, 1650, and spent fifty years in England, becoming naturalised British. He was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1759. (I wonder how many more Continental Europeans will achieve that accolade in the future.) He wrote so much with which we are all very familiar (Fireworks Music, Water Music, Zadoc The Priest etc.), as well as forty operas – amongst which ‘Xerxes’ was a complete flop; but its opening aria ‘Ombra mai fu’ has survived as one of Handel’s favourites, sung by almost every singer of note. So I accept that it is quite an assertion to make that I think this recording of over sixty years ago has not been bettered, but I am happy to stand by that.

If you’re not sure on first listening, I will not be surprised. But I will be surprised if she doesn’t grab you on the second, third – and then a few more. Perhaps slower than you might expect, it’s no less heavenly for that. The legendary conductor, Bruno Walter, is reported to have remarked that the high points in his career were ” meeting Kathleen Ferrier and Gustav Mahler – in that order.” Praise indeed.