Handel’s sense of humour

I am no twitcher, but I am lucky enough to live in an area in Kent where I am surrounded by all manner of birdsong, much of it not standard fare. A wren is seeking attention as I write this post.

The cuckoo, I accept, is not that unusual. As a solitary sound at 3.30 this morning, however, it brought me enormous comfort in my inability to sleep. More than that, it helped me to nod off eventually – and, to my huge gratification, was still there to greet me when I awoke to the dawn chorus an hour later.

My great uncle Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s perfect pitch (the ability to sing or identify a musical note) was identified very early when he uttered the words “Cuck-oo; e-c.”

The German-born George Frideric Handel moved to London in 1712 (and, with his remains in Westminster Abbey, was never asked to leave). With the big hits of The Water Music, The Messiah etc. under his belt he became a huge success, especially in the field of opera, as well as being a highly accomplished organist, who would combine these talents by introducing the premier of each opera with an off-the-cuff ditty on the organ. Barely any of his solo compositions for the instrument survive, but we are left with a group of organ concertos.

One of them is known as The Cuckoo and the Nightingale. Handel was a stout, short-tempered man, plagued by ill-health for much of his 71 bachelor years, including a later blindness which did not prevent him from playing or having a good sense of humour.

Take the second movement of this piece, a chirpy dialogue between these two birds. Handel tended to outline the main parts, but would often leave pages totally blank with the words Ad libitum, requiring the soloist to improvise as best he could. Simon Preston is one of our foremost organists and the conversation is clear. It’s also a good tune.

The eagle-eyed amongst you (note continuing of bird theme) will notice there are two pieces attached today.

If my father were alive today, he would be sharing his 61st Wedding Anniversary with my mother who told me this morning what a wonderful day that had been. Increasingly, later generations are able to share that memory with their parents, but for the moment, and in the context of this post, it is my wedding which comes to mind. What an opportunity this is to have a bit of fun.

The bride’s prerogative of being fashionably (but 20 minutes?) late was properly observed, despite her father being an equal to my own for punctuality, so the first lines of the hymn on their entrance, ‘Oh praise ye the Lord!’ were unintentionally apt. The congregation sat through a Mozart Mass, before the married couple exited to today’s second clip.

We only had a choir of four and a village organ, but with Catherine Wyn Rogers in their number, that was plenty. The late Anthony Rolfe Johnson sings this Handel refrain. Give it a couple of minutes and listen to the words which close the piece. I hope Handel might have approved.

Happy Anniversary, Mum.



Menacing Prokofiev

Ballet is a divisive art form. And not just for the performers.

I am not amongst its greatest fans, and will no doubt fall foul of many experts when I align myself closely with Bateman’s view ‘that most ballets would be quite delightful if it were not for the dancing.’

When you consider that early 20th century Russia was a period abundant with ballet compositions and personalities (Nijinsky, Pavlova, Diaghilev, Markova) I was surprised to find so many eminent native writers and composers who are considerably more scathing than Bateman. Tolstoy described ballet as ‘lewd’; Schoenberg as ‘not a musical form’. Chekhov’s appraisal takes some beating – ‘I don’t understand anything about ballet. All I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.’

You do not need to be a forensic historian to know that the above period in Russia was a time of unimaginable turmoil. The first thirty or forty years of the 20th century in a regime under Stalin were so ruthless, bloody, and unforgiving, that they could almost be said to have been rescued by the arrival of the Second World War. It was not a time when you would expect the arts to thrive; but whilst they struggled, they were not stifled.

Sergei Prokofiev’s life-span of 1891-1953 would come to bridge all this terror. An only child, born in Ukraine, he had a precocious talent at the keyboard, and an arrogant personality with it. He rubbed people up the wrong way, and his modern approach to composition wasn’t welcomed in either America (to where he fled initially) or Europe. And to be the creator of anything, words, art, music, in his homeland was to risk mysterious disappearance unless it conformed as expected. Even his Spanish wife, Lina, was dispatched to a labour camp under suspicion of being a spy.

So it is hard to trace much happiness in the man’s life, which ended at the age of 50 on exactly the same day as Stalin, but he must rank as one of the foremost 20th century composers. Nowadays, he is most widely known for his setting of Peter and the Wolf, but his music for Romeo and Juliet goes a long way to supporting Bateman’s view of ballet at the top of this post.

Today’s thrilling rendition from this ballet, The Dance of the Montagues and Capulets, has been used for countless backdrops, most notably The Apprentice (a neat irony, as Prokofiev was far from being a model student). Here, however, you will get a little more when the mood softens as Juliet joins the dance; only for a solo saxophone to remind you that trouble is not far away. It is a menacing passage.

Romeo and Juliet was my first of very few visits to the ballet. Some 35 years ago I was approached by the gorgeous, statuesque, Liz at work. She had a spare ticket, would I like to come, I’ll do the tickets, you do dinner? Dutch up front, no mistake. I wonder what became of her. I’ll avoid the obvious Shakespearean question.

Turn up the volume: this is a great version, opening with a discord of real terror.






Rain and Sun, Beethoven’s way

Somebody recently asked me which of Beethoven’s nine symphonies is my favourite.

After going through them quickly in my head, I could only reach one certain conclusion. “As long as it’s not the ninth, my favourite would have to be the one I’m listening to at the time.” That’s how hard it is. I exclude the ninth, because it just doesn’t connect with me, despite it having perhaps the most exquisite of all his symphonic slow movements.

That said, as I get older, so have I come to appreciate more the pieces by composers introduced to me in my younger years. In that context, I have not the slightest doubt that if you were to ask me which one piece I would recommend to anyone wanting an introduction to classical music, it would have to be Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, more usually known as The Pastoral. 

Which still doesn’t make it my favourite Beethoven symphony.  Unless I’m listening to it.

I have written about Beethoven once or twice before in these posts (Search Bar reveals all), but the one thing to remember with this awkward genius is that all the ‘rules’ of music, or perhaps, more accurately, ‘accepted conventions’, meant nothing to him.

He might reasonably be defined as an advocate of Goethe’s assertion that “…Rules will destroy the true feeling of Nature and its true expression.”

Beethoven led a desperately sad and introvert life, a man of obsessive habits, craving for love without success, dogged by almost total deafness for his last 15-20 years, a man whose creativity nevertheless ranks amongst the very highest, for some the highest, whilst seemingly happy to surround himself with appalling filth and indulge in copious quantities of wine, a propensity inherited from his even-more-thirsty father. But he was born, in 1770, in Bonn, a city which attracted prodigious musical talent; and he landed up in Vienna, where music thrived.

There is so much which could be written about him, none of it dull, but I suspect you might scroll down the page to alight on today’s choice, and perhaps you already have, so I must resist.  But imagine, if you can, the ability to produce such music against a backdrop of war, Napoleon, riots and revolutions in Europe that would make today’s shenanigans look like a picnic. Upheaval was rife.

Beethoven’s love of the countryside is well documented, and his 6th symphony, first performed in 1808, is a deliberate portrayal of this.

Unusually, (surprise, surprise), this symphony has five, rather than the typical four, movements, all of them with a specific title; and movements 3, 4 and 5 run into eachother without a break.

Many of you will be all too familiar with this and hence wrongly, from my own experience, dismiss it as not worth the time. But this is music which does not require its titles: I distinctly recall playing this to my young children and asking them to tell me what came to mind. “Sounds like thunder.”

Genius, I thought. Beethoven, of course, not my offspring, sadly.

So here are the last two uninterrupted movements. The first starts with a few spots of rain, building to a climactic, almost scary, thunderstorm, before subsiding with the occasional distant clack, and merging into joyful thanks in one of music’s most famous melodies. As the storm abates, it is easy to imagine the sun breaking through with a rainbow.

This is honestly the best piece I can suggest to anyone wanting to embark on a classical music discovery. That is why you should listen to it, however well you think you know it, to appreciate just how clever the man was.

If you really can’t be bothered, try playing it to someone who does not normally listen to this sort of music, just to see if it elicits the same response as my children. (I may have given them a tiny steer by mentioning ‘weather’, but no more.)