Melody maker supreme.

In his Essays and Lectures on Music in 1927, Donald Tovey made this extraordinary observation. He had unearthed an English Dictionary of Music published in 1827, in which Beethoven, who had died that year, was heralded as the greatest composer who had ever lived – and Franz Schubert, his natural successor, and who was to die just a year later, gets not so much as a single mention, despite five other Schuberts being listed!

With the benefit of hindsight, this may not be all that surprising, since it was only several years after his death that the true extent of his output was discovered. It was vast: over 600 songs alone, amongst symphonies, operas, chamber, piano and choral music. And all by the age of just 31.

You do not have to be a discerning reader of these modest posts to know that Schubert is by far my favourite composer, for one simple reason: melody. Melody is at the heart of everything he wrote. We could all name composers and current musicians in every field who have come up with good tunes, maybe even several or many – but not as many as Schubert. Whether happy or sad, melody is the central characteristic of all his compositions; and many are the times I have caught myself just laughing at the sheer audacity of how simple that melody can be. Schubert was an unassuming, modest man, the son of a schoolteacher, in whose footsteps he followed, as did the other surviving three of his thirteen siblings. He never married, and was by all accounts something of a loner; but maybe his impecunious life and background is what gives soul to his music.

There is something about this man’s music that makes you want to sing out loud. I have written previously about his Impromptus and many of you will be familiar with some of his more overplayed works, such as the Unfinished symphony or The Trout quintet, but I have also alluded to his Great C Major symphony as being my all time favourite symphony by anyone, so that is what I want to share with you today.

By the standards of the day, it was a marathon work: although having the standard four movements, a performance will take a minimum of 45 minutes, and can last up to an hour with the repeats. Players are frequently exhausted after its performance, especially when played with the energy in this recording of its final movement. The conductor George Szell (1897-1970) was born in Hungary, but was Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra in the US for nearly 25 years. He was a hard task-master, and it comes through here: the drive is relentless, almost breathless.

Schubert never lived to hear this. It was Robert Schumann who discovered it and persuaded Mendelssohn to conduct its first performance in 1839. We are told that the strings fell about laughing when rehearsing it, but the reality is that they were anything but amused: first, they found it fiendishly difficult to play; secondly, it is clear they took great issue (especially in this movement) at having to play what they considered to be a supporting role (you might almost say ‘second fiddle’) to the woodwind and brass. Listen out at about 1:30 and you will see what I mean, but it’s far from demeaning – it’s actually quite modern and delightful.

One last thought. There is much debate about repeats. But the instinct of anyone with half an ear for a good tune who listens to Schubert for the first time will surely be “play that again!” And he doesn’t disappoint: there probably aren’t more than a handful of different melodies in the whole symphony, but they are repeated subtly, leaving you begging for more. Schumann wrote of its ‘heavenly length’. Unlike any number of works of similar scale, I am always disappointed when it’s finished – and this recording by the Cleveland frequently leaves me reaching for the replay key.

Schubert was in some agony with fatal syphilis when he wrote this, but you wouldn’t even suspect it.




Jupiter and Team GB bring jollity and high eMOtions

What a fortnight!  I will leave the experts in journalism to sum up how the nation must feel after the highs and lows, mostly highs, of the events in Rio; but who could be failed to be moved with pride by the astonishing  achievements, as well as the noble handling of disappointments and sportsmanship?

Although the age range of successful medalists has been broad, the shining theme for me has to be the enthusiasm, inspiration and hope for the future which youth all around the world  have demonstrated in every event. Whether they have won a medal or not, none has been a loser; and they have brought more lumps to my throat than some of the most moving music I know.

Recently I had the privilege of being a guest of the National Youth  Orchestra of Great Britain at their prom in the Albert Hall. If you have ever attended a concert there, you will know that the quality and volume of the sound can vary enormously, depending on where you are sitting or standing. Over the years, I have found myself almost always wishing the music was a little louder; but on this joyous occasion, there were actually moments when I felt myself recoiling from the wall of sound, almost muttering “Do  you think you could turn it down a whisker?!” There were over 160 musicians, aged between 13 and 19 years of age, on the stage;  and I can say with complete confidence that I have never before heard volume like it anywhere in a live performance. The atmosphere, conveyed by a visible passion for music-making by these enormously talented players, encouraged by their conductor, Edward Gardner, is not something you would ever forget. I urge you to seek them out next year to witness the happiness that music can bring.

And so it seems highly apt that I can combine my reaction to the Olympics with the one I had to this concert, with youth and team spirit at the heart of them both. Even more apt was the inclusion  of a piece by Gustav Holst (1874-1934), who, having taught at St Paul’s School for girls in Hammersmith for some thirty years, was a great believer in the community spirit which music can instill. Despite his foreign – sounding name, Holst was British, of Swedish descent. On the program that evening was his most famous and best-received piece, The Planets, composed between 1914-17, a group of seven suites illustrating the moods of each as felt by Holst. His music was highly original and forward-looking, and was much acclaimed by his friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Out of the suite, I have picked Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. (This is from an earlier recording by the same orchestra.) At its heart it introduces a deeply emotive theme, later set to words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice in ‘I vow to thee my country‘. (Contrary to some views, Holst was entirely happy and flattered to be approached with the idea.) It is believed that the words were found on his desk when he left office as ambassador to the United States in 1918. In recent years, there has been some debate about whether its words make it unsuitable as a British anthem – bah, humbug, is my response to that!

The reason I have chosen it is that it demonstrates how happiness and exultation does not have to be portrayed with excessive flamboyance: a stirring theme can do the trick too. It may explain why sometimes we are moved to tears with joy, rather than outright laughter. And it sums up so well the emotions I felt watching this orchestra and then the Olympics, with their common characteristics of youth striving for excellence. ‘A love that never falters‘ forever lurks in the background. August has brought a pride I have rarely felt in a national context – bring on 2020!

#rio2016 #teamgb #uksport #holst #nationalyouthorchestraofgreatbritain #planets #jupiter #olympics #mofarah




Our Olympians deserve better!

I know I’ve only posted recently; but I’m sorry, I just can’t resist this. It’s a slight diversion from the norm, so I will be brief.

I’ve been glued to the Olympics over the last few days and the achievements of our athletes thus far is surely going to turn out to be the ultimate legacy of 2012 by the end of next week. But oh, the awful rendition of our national anthem, a somewhat dreary tune at the best of times! It’s a melody as well known as ‘Happy birthday’, which is why many have come to tire of it, and there has been much debate over recent years about whether it should be replaced – as is sometimes informally done with ‘Jerusalem’ at more English, as opposed to national, events, such as Test Matches. Leaving that aside, foreign versions of our national anthem are almost universally awful.

In 1961, Benjamin Britten created his own arrangement for the Leeds Festival, and the Queen was present. If you’ve ever attended, or listened to, the Last Night of the Proms, you will be familiar with it. If you don’t know it, you may be surprised that it can be as beautiful as this. The story goes that the Queen  was herself very moved on its first hearing, complimenting Britten and observing to him that she had, of course, heard it on a number of occasions.

Clearly there would be no time to play these two verses on the medal podium (although it would probably still be shorter than a number of others), but this is my good luck card to Team GB. It’s great stuff.


A double Mozart bill.

I doubt there can be many music lovers of any genre who haven’t heard of the name Luciano Pavarotti, and with good reason.

He was probably the most commercially successful tenor of the last hundred years, possessed of a lyric and powerful voice, especially in the very highest notes, even if it was more instantly captivating in his younger years than later. I think even his closest friends and family would agree that acting was not his strong suit, and that he would have struggled to scrape a grade at the Roger Moore School of Eyebrow-Raising – which is why I have always preferred the artistry of Placido Domingo, who was able to combine the finest singing with a thoroughly convincing stage presence. But Pavarotti’s fans hold him as the greatest, and it is easy to see why – it is, once more, simply a matter of taste.

Fewer, I suspect, will have heard of the now retired Francisco Araiza, a Mexican tenor whose early focus was in the operas of Mozart and Rossini, later branching out into larger Italian roles and even Wagner. He is now an acclaimed teacher and judge.

As if trying to persuade you of the joys of music and opera was not enough, I thought it would be a fun experiment to post two clips of the same music, to demonstrate how very different the same piece can sound, even when performed by two masters of their craft.

I have written about Cosi fan tutte before, (see ‘Stress buster’ for a reminder of the synopsis), a Mozart opera all about the joys and pains of love; since it is not littered with numerous memorable arias, this little gem is an easy pick. (And you’ll want to hear it again anyway, so this is as good a way of doing that as any.) Ferrando thinks he is winning the bet as he sees his love, Dorabella, spurn the advances of Guglielmo, and sings Un’ aura amorosa (A breath of love) in her praise. Ignore the fact that one is accompanied by a pianist (James Levine is the man with the big hair) and the other by an orchestra: focus your attention on the voice alone, then ask yourself, in the context of this opera about love, which is closer to Mozart’s aims, which has more heart, which one has more soul, which one has more warmth?

These are two sensational singers, one infinitely more famous than the other. But, to me, at least, it is the less renowned who stands head and shoulders above the big star. It shows that you can have all the singing gifts in the world, but it does not necessarily equip you to sing every role in your range. The voice alone is sometimes not enough. Maybe you will disagree, and that’s fine by me, but this only serves to highlight how different all these interpretations, in every field, can be; it is, perhaps, what stands music apart from most other art forms  – and why I so enjoy selecting for these posts what I think is the best.


Mendelssohn – mediocre? No!

If Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) were able to assess his own life, his only justifiable grievance would be its brevity.

One of four children, (a sister, Fanny, was almost as talented as her brother in composition and piano playing), Mendelssohn led a charmed existence: he was handsome, highly educated, well-read, a talented artist; as well as being an accomplished piano player and organist (so good, in fact, that on one occasion the organ had to be switched off after a service, as noone was going home); composer, respected  conductor – and rich.

In short, the full package and a good catch.

I suspect the fact that this child prodigy never had to struggle financially has contributed to some labeling his work as superficial, sentimental, and even mediocre.

And I must confess to having been influenced that way for many years, for which I must lay the blame squarely on my journalist idol, Bernard Levin, who wrote so persuasively and eloquently about many subjects, few more so than music. A passionate Wagnerian, whose music I can only really take in smaller doses (I’m with Rossini on this, who is supposed to have said ‘Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart-d’heures!’) Levin once wrote that he didn’t “really see the point of Mahler”; rated Verdi as a rather “ordinary musician” – and questioned why, with all the other talents he had at his disposal, Mendelssohn felt the need to devote his life to music! Having for years heard nothing much more than his big hits of the violin concerto, the Hebrides overture, incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Scottish and Italian symphonies, I had some sympathy with this view for too long, wrongly asserting it was all just too sugary. What a mistake, but one so easily made when not enough of his other choral and chamber music is played.

And here’s some evidence. The octet which Mendelssohn wrote is the work of a mature musician, but it was performed in 1825, when he was just 16 years old. It is a work of nearly half an hour, and I am attaching the first of its four movements. Eight string instruments unfold almost half the piece with a beautiful violin melody, underpinned with an energetic momentum – and just when you think it’s running out of steam on the final bend, there’s a renewed sprint to the line. When you consider his age, this is the work of a genius, no question. It’s not sugary, it’s a delight.

And so I must respectfully disagree with Bernard Levin on this (as I do on his views on Verdi), however much I admire his writing. And I took some pleasure in stumbling across this quip from Wagner about Mendelssohn in an article entitled Judaism in Music in 1850:Mendelssohn has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest of talents, the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour, yet these qualities cannot help him even once to evoke in us the deep heart-searching effect which we expect from art.’ Are not Levin’s remarks a paraphrase of that? Methinks even my own idol may just have been susceptible to the views of one of his own.

Mendelssohn died at just 38 years old, after a couple of strokes which were brought on from overwork. We have much to thank him for: not least editing and conducting Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion nearly eighty years after his death, as well as reviving his music in Europe generally. And it was also Mendelssohn who conducted the first performance of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony in 1839, a work its composer never heard played, and my all time favourite symphony.

The purists do not give him the credit he deserves.