Bizet’s four minute pearl.

Georges Bizet wrote 30 operas, but most of us can name only 2. Each of them happens to book-end the other 28.

The Pearlfishers was his first foray into this art form, and Carmen his last. Both were disasters when first performed in 1863 and 1874 respectively. It’s not too unreasonable to suggest that he need hardly have bothered with the inbetweeners, for they are rarely staged.

Bizet was another of those talented composers who was gathered early, suffering two heart attacks at the age of 36. He was a bon viveur, amusing and quick tempered, a child prodigy, and later a heavy cigar smoker, who fathered a child with his mother’s maid, and another with his wife. He went to his grave in Paris completely unaware of how popular Carmen would one day become.

The Pearlfishers also has fabulous music, but has not earned quite the same appreciation, thanks to its slightly unlikely plot. Two close friends in love with the same woman, a high priestess to boot, might sound typical opera fare, and true to operatic form, it does not end well, but the work is now best known for its famous duet between the two friends in which each affirms his loyalty to the other.

Au fond du temple saint‘ is now performed regularly as a stand-alone piece, and it is not hard too see why: it is a great tune. And if sung by two masters of their craft, the mingling of tenor and  baritone voices tingles the spine. Most will be familiar with it, but maybe not this version, here sung by the Swedish lyric tenor Jussi Björling (sensational voice) and American baritone, Robert Merrill.

The sound quality may not be the best, but what a fusion of vocals this is! The dated black and white photograph accompanying the music looks like it might have once hung in your local Italian restaurant.

When the opera was first performed, one critic from Le Figaro observed ‘There were neither fishermen in the libretto nor pearls in the music’. I expect he thought he was being clever, but the passage of time has brought a different verdict.

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Giving thanks for music.

Yes, I know I have posted on Franz Schubert once or twice before, but I have a really good excuse to do so again. Indulge me, and I will then contain my love for this man’s prodigious output for a while.

Anyone tuning in to last night’s installment of Victoria on television may remember Victoria and Albert making a bit of a hash of a song at the end, with her at the piano. I could not discern the words being sung, but the music was Schubert’s. With over 600 songs to his name, I cannot, obviously, claim to have heard even a fraction of them. Let’s just say this is my favourite of the many I know.

Before I started these modest ramblings, I did post the song on Facebook, but I make no apologies for revisiting it. It’s not just the melody, which for Schubert was the end in itself, but the words by his friend, Franz von Schober, which makes this brief song such a gem.

An die Musik‘ (‘To music’), was Schubert’s hymn to music, written in 1817. It’s astonishing how much fervour and love for the art he can arouse in just a couple of minutes. Here is the text, with a translation:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

Schubert wrote over 1,000 pieces of music in his 31 years, and here’s an image of the part of the original for today’s piece. It’s just for solo voice and piano – imagine the labour involved transposing the sound in your head to paper.

Ian Bostridge (b 1964) gives a clear and sympathetic account of this simple message. Julius Drake (b 1959) provides an equally sensitive support at the piano. Lots of emotion and fervent gratitude here.

Do not underestimate the importance of the piano: people can often overlook its part, heaping all the praise on the singer. Someone once wrote that if you don’t understand the words in Schubert’s songs listen to the instrument and you will know the meaning well enough. Schubert would often accompany his singers, but shied way from praise, which was not in excessive supply during his life anyway: not until some 60-70 years later was the huge extent of his work unearthed. Thank goodness.

Few snippets better sum up my own feelings about music. The message endures. Abba would have their own version, Thank you for the music, about 160 years later. It needs no grand explanation, no words – of mine, at least – will never do it justice. Click image to hear why.


“Too many notes.”

Almost everyone will be familiar with those withering words, which were attributed to the Emperor Joseph II in the 1984 film, Amadeus, after hearing the first performance of Mozart’s opera, Il Seraglio.  

Aside from the frivolous, and quite ludicrous, nature of the observation, it did prompt me to reflect: if not too many notes, certainly very many.

We are now so used to the massive output and creativity of classical music over the last few hundred years that it can be easy to overlook the sheer labour involved in transcribing these mental sounds on to paper.

Think for a moment on the implications of no electricity in this context. No electronic keyboard with the luxury of a backspace (probably the most used button on my laptop) to delete or replace. No means of recording. In short everything, absolutely everything (including the lines for the music itself, giving us the word ‘score’) had to be done by hand. Nowadays you can sing a tune into any number of gizmos, and before you have gathered your breath with the next inspiration, you will have a beautifully produced manuscript, fully orchestrated and ready to go.

This is not to belittle the efforts of contemporary composers, merely to highlight the extraordinary achievements of their predecessors. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that music, – unlike, say, painting – relies almost solely on the hand of its creator. Yes, there are plenty of examples of composers or students finishing off works of their masters; but because you cannot ever hear what is going on in a musician’s head, nothing can have the authenticity of the originator. An artist can direct his followers much more easily.

Even an author or playwright is transferring one or two thoughts into just one thread, a sentence, a phrase.

This makes the feat of writing music down a monumental task. At one end, the solo instrument may present few problems; but imagine, at the other end of the scale, conveying the sound of a full opera, or a mass, with all its singers and every single instrument in an orchestra. It’s no wonder that so many fecund composers died young. Regardless of what they’d been suffering from, exhaustion must surely have played a part.

All those notes. All by hand. And for hundreds of years with a quill and ink.

I’ve no idea how many notes there are in this electrifying piece by Mendelssohn, his Rondo Capriccioso for piano, published in 1830, when the composer was just 21 (he would not reach 40). Lots in the closing half, that’s for sure. I’ve posted on this composer once before (his octet), and the more I listen to him, the more I realize how much joy I’ve been avoiding for so many years.

In its opening bars you might be forgiven for thinking it’s the introduction to a Schubert song, and it certainly does sing. The real action starts a couple of minutes in, with a thrilling presto, which professional pianists will secretly confide sounds harder to play than it is – which is why it is something of a showpiece.

The American pianist Murray Perahia (b 1947) is the performer here, a musician whose career has been intermittently interrupted by a hand injury, but as good an interpreter of the keyboard music of Mendelssohn, Mozart and Bach you will find. Some 40 years ago, I took a girl to see him perform a Mozart piano concerto in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. I wonder if she remembers…

Too many words. Over to the music.

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Mozart, “Look, mum – four hands!”

A quick glance at recent posts suggests my choice of music in the last weeks may have erred on the melancholy, if not introspective. Time to open the curtains and let in some sun.

Mozart wrote 23 concertos for piano and orchestra. They are filled with tunes which are sometimes impossible to get out of your head, but unlike nagging commercial jingles, I’m never too bothered if they linger. Number 10, probably written in 1779 when Wolfgang was all of 20, was composed for two pianos and is about as exuberant a piece as you will ever hear.

His older sister, Maria Anna, was every bit as talented as her gifted sibling and their pushy dad, Leopold, was at pains to advance both their talents at any opportunity. They would often perform together, so it is quite possible that Mozart wrote the concerto for that purpose. It’s unlikely, however, that such an occasion took place, because by 1779 Nanneri, as she was known, was of marriageable age, and it simply wasn’t done for ladies in that position to be cavorting their talents in public.

Image result for maria anna mozart

Leopold would have known this, which makes his helicopter-parent approach somewhat questionable. We do know that Mozart played it with one of his pupils a few years later (Josepha Barbara von Auernhammer, if you are setting the questions in your next pub quiz and want to silence the room).

The last of the three movements is a joyous Rondo. The unusual aspect of this work is that most of the dialogue is concentrated between the two pianos, rather than between solo instrument and orchestra, as was the norm. The piece is now some 240 years old and the performers would have been playing under candlelight, possibly on instruments not unlike this –

Contrast this with today’s clip, here played by the late Sir Georg ‘Screaming Skull’ Solti and Daniel Barenboim. The pianos are vast, and it is hard not to imagine how the mischievous Mozart  would have reveled in laying his hands on one. Solti also conducts the orchestra, he just can’t resist meddling, but in truth his direction is totally unnecessary for this work: its role is no more than supportive in a teasing, lyrical and lively conversation between the two Steinways.

The key is Eb flat major, a point only worth observing because it is the same key that Beethoven later scored his Emperor Piano Concerto and Eroica symphony, both of them uplifting and life-affirming works: there are moments when Solti almost seems to be playing Beethoven, while Barenboim stays rooted to the playfulness and charm of Mozart.

The mingling of the soloists is exquisite, shut your eyes and you can barely separate them. Unbridled joy.

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