A trilogy of light relief

We are engulfed daily by unfathomable sadness, anxiety, and uncertainty. Our way of life has been changed beyond recognition and things will never be quite the same again. Every news bulletin is dominated by one story alone; and so, for the moment, I am avoiding the BBC at 10pm.

Openly appreciating what you have is not unawkard, because it risks appearing insensitive to those less fortunate. I’m not even talking about this at a material level: no one living alone without access to the outside is going to take kindly to being encouraged to marvel at the beauty of spring.

But that, as I write, is precisely what occupies me at present. We tread this earth but once: who of us has ever witnessed an April when the air has been so clean; the sky so blue; the green on the trees so vibrant; the birdsong so shrill? And yet – was ever T.S.Eliot’s line ‘April is the cruellest month’ truer than it is now?

Cruel for exposing us to two polar extremes: nature at its unpolluted best… alongside a silence – a silence which one moment we may welcome in its reawakening of our awareness; but eerie, the next, too. Wonder and fear rolled into one.

I think we need some light relief. Of the many barriers to an appreciation of classical music, some of the terminology used for describing how the composer would like the music played, almost always denoted in Italian, is undoubtedly a bit of a turn-off. Fortissimo, presto, piano, allegro ma non troppo, andante, etc, all sound pretentious to the newcomer, but it is simply part of the established language. Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore give their own lighthearted explanation of it here, click on the image –

Those of a certain age may never have seen, much less used, a contraption called a typewriter. It’s what we used before computers. Here’s a demonstration of how it works, set to music by Leroy Anderson. That bell you hear is your reminder that you need to shunt the bar to start the next line. No backspacing or spelcheck: if you made a mistayke, you had to start again or get out some whitener and type over it. Imaginn having to do that the hole time. Click on image, for the second slice –

Just in case you’re thinking that self-isolation has got the better of me, I must now return to the brief. By a remarkable coincidence, BBC Radio 3 is currently playing the very piece for today’s post, Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, and, specifically here, the third movement, marked Allegretto grazioso. Allegretto is one of those less useful markings, meaning moderately quick, leaving lots of room for interpretation. But grazioso is an important steer, because without it, you may not enjoy the intended mood.

There are some I know who diss Dvorak’s music as lightweight – my father called it pop music! We agreed on most things, but good tunes don’t make it kitsch. And this is a good tune, underlined by a gracious flow, making it fresh and uplifting. Don’t be put off by the length, it doesn’t go on for 10 minutes, just over 6 – whoever was doing the recording must have been distracted for a few minutes before realising it had finished.

I chose this particular recording as it is conducted by the late Jiri Belohlavek, a Czech maestro whose nationality, you might reasonably infer, adds a certain authenticity to his reading of the piece. Anyway, I love it; so click here to find out why –



Happy Easter with Handel and Mascagni

I promised I’d be back on this most peculiar of Easter Days. I won’t however, deter you long. There are two uplifting pieces I’d like to share with you today in praise of this festival, my favourite in the Christian calendar; one will be familiar, the other, perhaps, less so.

‘A star is born.’ No, not that one. I’m not sure when the phrase was coined first, but the original film of that name was released in 1937, just two years after the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her performance as Isolde in Tristan and Isolde prompted a leading critic to dispense with her notes and assert  ‘A star is born.’  Flagstad assumed that status almost instantly and went on to be one of the very greatest Wagnerians ever.

She had two things in her favour: a stunning, powerful soprano voice, ideal for Wagner; and she was also something of a beauty. The perfect combination for the operatic stage.

Handel’s Messiah, whilst often performed around Christmas, has a text actually more suited to Easter. So here is my first clip today: ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth.’ You will be familiar with it for sure, but finding a Flagstad recording was a lovely surprise. What a life-affirming passage this is, and never more suitable than on the day of the resurrection. This performance was sung after her retirement. She is 63: it’s still a huge voice!

The second I want to bring you is The Easter Hymn from Cavalleria Rusticana, a one act opera by Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945). Although he wrote sixteen operas, this one is the only one played nowadays and is invariably paired with I Pagliacci (as ‘Cav and Pag’) by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), who is similarly known for this one alone. Cavalleria Rusticana was an instant success, but Mascagni’s Fascist sympathies alienated his adoring public and left him both disgraced and broke.

What these two one-act operas have in common is their emphasis on ‘verisimo’ opera, the attempt to convey the lives of real people, normal folk, if you will, as opposed to heroic, often mythical, characters in grand opera. The action in Cav takes place on Easter Sunday and involves a simple plot of love, jealousy, and death.

Between the two scenes comes this fabulous soaring tune, here led by another enormous voice, the mezzo-soprano Fiorenza Cossotto (b 1935). The quality of the image leaves everything to be desired, and the subtitles are only going to be of limited help, but there is no mistaking the voice.

So there you have it. Two Easter offerings by two of the great voices of the twentieth century. Wherever you find yourself, alone or in company; however disorientated you might feel today, may this music bring you every possible hope and comfort.



It has to be Bach

This is slightly longer than usual. But I have more time on my hands just now. And, let’s be honest, shall we, so do you. Besides, there are things I need to say. Please don’t quit: none of it is unneccessary.

Wherever we find ourselves this Easter, it will be unlike any we have experienced before.

Today it is Maundy Thursday. As most of you will know, the word ‘Maundy’ comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. Whether you are a Christian or not, the central message of the Last Supper, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another’ can scarcely be more apt than it is now.

Before I get stuck into matters musical, allow me to digress and share a Maundy anecdote with you. For nearly thirty years, my late father volunteered as a guide at Westminster Abbey, for which, to his enormous surprise, he was recommended and received Maundy Money from the Queen. For the only time in her reign, her own birthday coincided with this occasion. Everyone, of course, knew this.

But in my father’s case, the occasion brought back a particular memory, which we, his own family, heard for the first time on the day. (To put it into context I was in my mid 50s.) Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, celebrated her 18th birthday at Windsor Castle. When it became clear that they were four men short, word went out to a school nearby to send up some suitable substitutes and my father was one who caught the selector’s eye.

Off they went, the only men in black tie, everyone else being in uniform. With the good manners that defined his whole life, my father requested a dance of his hostess, Queen Elizabeth, not yet the Queen Mother – who, no doubt with equal grace, declined him. Duty fulfilled, he sought out the next best option. Everybody was queueing for Princess Margaret. So dad made for the birthday girl herself – who accepted his invitation.

When Her Majesty approached my father on that Maundy Thursday, her birthday, she was introduced to him with the reason for him being a recipient, with the addition that ‘This gentleman danced with you on your 18th birthday!’ Once the details had been filled in, the smile on her face was the most radiant I think I’ve ever seen and the sparkle in her eyes was stiff competition for the glistening on her not insubstantial diamond brooch.

I expect you may be wondering how she replied – we certainly did. Unfortunately the words were lost in the recesses of the abbey. “I’ve really no idea,” he said. “I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t hear a word.”

Returning now to that new commandment to love one another. We will all have personal experiences of this basic reality in the last couple of weeks. Yesterday, it was brought home to me in two polar opposite ways: I spoke to a near life-long friend who unwttingly found himself as a mini celebrity, after listening to his eloquent and deeply moving account on television of how the love of doctors and nurses had saved his life from being taken by COVID-19.

And last night we heard the shattering news that another friend, who was due to undergo emergency brain surgery this morning, had himself proved positive for the virus, meaning that the operation cannot, for now, go ahead.

Both bring home what matters in a fragile world. Love, essentially, is all we can cling to, to pull us through. It may be corny as hell, but at the moment we are being reminded of it like never before in our lives.

The current lockdown means that this is the first year in very many when I have been unable to make my annual pilgrimage to The Royal Festival Hall to hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, my one non-negotiable, save-from-the-waves Desert Island Disc. I have written about this piece on previous occasions at this time of year: as a work lasting just under three hours, it is stuffed with with memorable moments.

Today I pick out one close to the end – ‘Mache dich mein herz rein‘ (in the old, and my preferred, translation, ‘Make thee clean my heart from sin.’) The music has a little skip to it, alongside a yearning quality in its plea to ‘let Jesus in’.

Remember, you do not need to be a believer, even if it helps, to appreciate this. But if you aren’t, no matter: when it comes to ‘let Jesus in’, just swap the name ‘Jesus’ for ‘Love’, in the same way George Herbert did in his beautiful poem of the same name. Look it up and you’ll see that they are interchangeable; and if you remain unconvinced, concentrate on love.

If we let love in, we can be sure we’ll let it out. I’ll be back on Easter Sunday with something much briefer. In the meantime, click on the image and soak up this gorgeous supplication in Bach’s masterpiece.




Haydn in London – last effort!

My computer has resumed alerting me in the bottom right hand corner that ‘You may have a virus.’ I used to ignore such warnings as irritants. Now I’m finding them as a rather tasteless reminder of a world I no longer recognise.

Attracted by the buzz and almost insatiable appetite for all things cultural, Josef Haydn paid a couple of visits to London in the 1790s. Back then, although the largest city in Europe, its expanse covered only a few square miles with a population approaching one million. London has now stretched to over 600 square miles with a population of nine million.

We may think it crowded now, but the density levels would have been fairly insufferable. The Industrial Revolution, the last period in history (and, as it happens, the first) to have made so major impact on our whole way of life, was in full flow. It was the age of steam, mechanisation, textiles – and burgeoning worldwide trade. And London’s air, I imagine, would have been polluted with the effects of coal burning. It would doubtless have been horribly malodorous.

Were Haydn in a position to drop by now, he would be struck by two things, one to his delight, the other to his dismay. His small and tubby physique would now be the beneficiary of the cleanest air the capital has ever known; but the main attraction of his first visits, London as the cultural hub of Europe (yes, including Vienna) would be conspicouosly absent. Theatres, museums, concert halls all empty.

If I could have imagined when I started writing these musical musings that I would ever come to number 104, for that is where we are now, I would have known instantly the composer and the piece.

Haydn. Symphony 104. But what I could not have known is how appropriate that would be. For Haydn’s 104th symphony is called The London.

Everyone is being affected negatively by this hideous disease in one way or another. I make no comment that isolation for those who entertain us is better or worse than anyone else, but since my focus here is solely classical music, this post is dedicated to them.

Here is the final movement of the symphony, played by The Norwegian Symphony under the direction of Steven Isserlis. It is marked Spiritoso, which I don’t think needs translating. Listen to the unbridled exuberance of the melody, the majesty and buzz of London at its heart – and then look at the joy which shines from an ensemble sharing the music, not just with each other, but a live audience. A joy which is now on hold.

It is reminder of the bond that music can bring. And, not a moment too soon, will bring again.