Category Archives: Music

16 Dec

Musical Treacle

I don’t know why I put myself through it. Why do I never learn? I suppose it must be some fugitive spirit of optimism in me which makes me persist when, in the words of G.K. Chesterton, I ought to “chuck it.”

I was at it again last evening. I switched on Radio Three’s teatime music programme. No music – only “studio guests” and “celebs” gushing more soft soap at one another than you could find in Widow Twanky’s laundry. That was my first mistake. The second was even more irretrievable: I switched over to Classic FM where they played one after another late Romantic rhapsodies of such treacliness that they reminded me of one critic’s comment on Tosca as “…the opera in which Puccini’s music achieves its final putrescence.” I was listening to the programme on television and throughout the screen bore a legend which purported to describe for me what I was listening to:

“Sublime, relaxing music to ease the stresses and strains of the day.”

Obviously, I had been mistaken. I had switched on in the hope of hearing some music, but what we were being offered was a short course in psychotherapy. And it was offensive in the extreme.

The word “sublime” does not indicate a palliative nor is it “relaxing.” Edmund Burke in his Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) writes:

“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.”

Examples of the sublime would include Jacob’s exclamation, “How dreadful is this place!” (Genesis 28:17) and God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Think of The Tempest and “Be not affeared, the isle is full of noises” Or, “What are the roots that clutch? What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?”

Think Bach and the Sanctus from the Mass in B-minor. Or the last movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony when the chord of C-major finally emerges, blazing out of all that jumble. (He gets it from the Bible and Haydn: “Let there be light!”)

One man asks for bread and is given a stone.

When we switch on a music programme we hope for inspiration, to be exhilarated and, from time to time, overawed. Instead Classic FM gives us a box of sickly bon-bons.

Thank God for CDs and YouTube

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30 Aug

Beethoven’s Funk

My first meeting some fifteen years ago with a man who is now among my closest friends ended up in a triple-forte row. Over supper in the restaurant, I mentioned that I had just bought Andras Schiff’s recordings of all the Mozart piano sonatas. My friend, who shall remain nameless – but who’s name actually is Alexander Boot – a man with a well-tuned ear for the apt phrase – said, “I call him Andras S**t!”

He was right. I hardly played the recordings and last year i gave them away. I feel rather guilty about giving them to someone else, feeling it’s a bit like serving your pal a piece of dodgy pork.

Well, I must be a glutton – not for dodgy pork, but for punishment. For last evening I switched on the wireless to listen to Schiff – now Sir Andras – conduct the excellent Leipzig Gewandhaus in a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the Proms. The Leipzig musicians played with their usual clarity and tone: but what they had to play, how they were directed to play was an atrocity. I have never heard anything so palpably awful since a performance of Mahler’s Second by James Loughran in the Free Trade Hall in 1975.

That Schiff could do such dirt on Beethoven’s Seventh, one of the liveliest symphonies in the repertoire! It dragged along like a lump of dead meat.

But you know how you do: I persevered, hoping for it to get better. Surely in the presto scherzo he would liven up a bit? No. Not in the allegro con brio finale either – the movement which Nietzsche extolled as “the apotheosis of the dance.” Last night it was more like the apotheosis of lumbago. To say it was spiritless would be to insult all the shades in the graveyard.

Beethoven’s first two symphonies are conventional 18th century style pieces recalling Haydn. (Characteristically, Beethoven, having had lessons from Haydn, claimed he learnt nothing from him. Yes, well, even Homer nods now and then. But the third, The Eroica burst into the world like an exploding galaxy. Music was never the same again. Beethoven seemed – yes, even Beethoven – to need a period of recovery after The Eroica and indeed the fourth is a fairly conventional affair – and no worse for that, by the way. Then he’s back to being a whirling dervish again in the tearaway fifth: that dazzling C-major chord which erupts towards the climax of the last movement…well, it’s what he heard in Haydn’s The Creation, isn’t it? The revelatory “Let there be light!” after the representation of chaos.

The old man needed a breather again and he takes it in the leisurely pastorale of his sixth. Only then does he feel ready to hurl the seventh at us. Another breather in the (almost) dainty precision of the little eighth; before the desert storm of the ninth.

How could Sir Andras perpetrate such an affront to Ludwig van? He made even the costive lushness of Karajan sound spritely. I could have done with a dose of Furtwangler or Leonard Bernstein.

Did Sir Andras get his knighthood for rescuing stray dogs, or what?

(I hope Mr Boot doesn’t mind my telling you this. But you were right, Alex. By hell you were right!)

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05 Apr

Music as junk food

The BBC call The Today Programme their “flagship news and current affairs” coverage, so we can confidently turn to it for serious comment and analysis of those things which matter most to the nation. And indeed The Today Programme does not disappoint: this morning, for example, they were discussing the burning cultural issue, “Which year was the best year ever for music?”

As a musical amateur I was captivated, turned up the volume and prepared to receive the experts’ learned assessment. Surely a contender would be 1727, when J.S. Bach first performed St Matthew Passion? Or perhaps  Mozart’s composing his last three symphonies – in E-flat, G-minor and C-major – inside six weeks in 1788. Another candidate would surely be 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica in Vienna? Chopin’s Twenty-four Preludes first delighted the world in 1839. Messiah given in Dublin in 1742. Schoenberg’s plunge into atonality in his String Quartet Number 2 in 1908 perhaps? Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony in 1941?

These are only a few memorable years from the abundant riches of European music, and chosen off the top of my head. Which year would the BBC experts choose as the pinnacle of musical creativity?

Nah, none of the above!

This is the BBC and its presenters faithfully represent the culture of the society in which they earn their daily ciabatta. So for them, “music” is pop music, aka crap, junk, rubbish, noise, fashion, trending, narcissism. Anything else is “classical music” – a niche for elitists and snobs. Tune in to any of the quiz shows and the category “music” will come up. But it will not be music as we know it. It will be “the charts.” The Corporation is in thrall to pop stars. Recall the way they cut short an interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury to prattle everlastingly about the decease of of the great fraud and self-promotion guru David Bowie. Some years ago, when one of their very own presenters of pop – John Peel – died, the entire half hour of the 6pm news was given up to the subject. When Michael Jackson snuffed it, the coverage went on for three days. I turned on the TV and heard that he had died. I went out to dinner and when I came back they were yet talking about him. Next morning the news was, “Michael Jackson: still dead.”

And even the BBC’s music station, Radio Three has been poppified. All gushing chat and golly-gosh as the presenter tells us how much some piece “made me tingle.” Everything reduced to sentimentality and me-me-me. No evaluation, no enlightening comment. No critical apparatus at all. All most unmusical.

So which year did they nominate for the great accolade, the best year ever for music?

Was it The Beatles’ first LP? Or the year when The Rolling Stones chucked all them tellies out of the hotel window? Or the memorable year when Bob Dylan decided that henceforth he would always “sing” with a peg on his nose, so to elevate his pretentiousness to a height previously un-scaled even by that prince of doggerel-mongers? How about the year we were given the shuffling nihilism of John Lennon’s Imagine? An offering from Freddie Planet of the Apes? The Boomtown Saver of Africa? Or something by the most suicidal pop-junkie ever to smash a guitar?

Actually, I can’t tell you. I’ve forgotten. 

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13 Aug

Hey dude, Mozart never got downloads!

At last that upstart Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been put in his place. Following something that was billed as A late night Ibiza prom, became the most downloaded of all thirty-five proms so far this season, “disc-jockey” Pete Tong was heard to exclaim “Take that, Mozart” after conducting a rendition of Cafe Del Mar, the 1993 Ibiza classic by Energy 52.

One aficionado of this work of inspired genius cooed:

“Tong kicked off proceedings with Fatboy Slim’s Right Here, Right Now, a dance classic with a whole lot of violins. Other tracks included ATB’s Till I Come, The Shapeshifters’ Lola’s Theme, and a host of other ‘90s and ’00s house music classics. If you’re an Ibiza regular or you remember the days when your legs worked properly and you could down a pint in seconds rather than hours, then this particular Prom will provide goosebumps, neck tingles, and perhaps even a tear or two.”

I confess that, after having listened to only a few bars, I shed many tears. In fact, I couldn’t stop weeping.

“Our arm muscles were burning… but we didn’t care,” said violinist Kerenza Peacock in an interview for the BBC’s Newsbeat. “That was during the epic rendition of Insomnia by Faithless, one of the most iconic dance tracks to ever grace Ibiza’s shores.”

We must be glad of such progress in our aesthetical assessments. In Mozart’s day we had to rely on hearsay and the mere opinions of fogeys such as Joseph Haydn who told Mozart’s father, “Before God and as an honest man, I say your son is the greatest living composer.”

But heck, what did Haydn know? His was just one opinion – and the opinion of a notorious elitist fuddy-duddy at that.

At last – led by the BBC Proms’ brave DJs and other innovators – we are emerging from centuries of stuffy pseudo-musical appraisal into a truly scientific, and genuinely democratic, method by which to judge the quality of music. I speak, of course, of what will surely come to be referred to as the Democratic Phenomenon of the Oiks’ Download (the D-POD).

The beauty of this is that, when it comes to forming a judgement, no musical understanding whatever is required. The D-POD ingeniously by-passes the issue of quality and provides us with a method which is purely quantitative and thus truly objective.

And, as we have belatedly recognised, this is the only way to arrive at valid aesthetic judgements.

In future, don’t ask of any piece of music, “How good is it?” Just count the downloads.

And, if further proof of the superiority of the new method is required, just think of this: Mozart didn’t get any downloads, he never went clubbing in Ibiza and was never known to down a pint in seconds.

Thanks then to the BBC for providing us with what will become our one true Centralised Register of All Performances (CRAP)

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31 Jul

Rite me a poim, Megan

“Now then Megan, I want you to write a poem. And when you’ve finished, please compose a forty-part motet, cook me a cordon bleu supper and show me your designs for a new cathedral.”

If it weren’t so depressing, it would be risible to note that anyone – borderline illiterates included – are expected to be able to write poetry. What is a poem? I recall C.H. Sisson’s definition of its meaning today in the schools: “A composition in which the words do not quite extend to the margins.”

But never mind the dumb schools, this is what The Spectator offers us as an example of a poem:

“None of the teachers who taught us

Were around that final afternoon at

Grammar school – probably frightened

Of being assaulted after giving us so

Much grief for five years, no more of

That though. We sat around unsupervised

Playing cards and smoking a bit and then

It seemed so simple, so absurdly easy to

Just walk down the drive and out of the front

Gate for the last time.”

I thought it must be by poor Megan who is troubled by learning difficulties and dyslexia issues, but it turns out to be by Paul Birtill, a contributor to The Morning Star. Before we get started on thinking about your “poem”, Paul, do you mind if we just deal with something pretty basic? I mean it’s not frightened of but frightened by. It’s afraid of, as any poet no. They don’t teach you that at grammar school – ‘cos it’s grammar, innit? And, while I’m at it, none takes was not were. 

There’s no call for dogmatism when it comes to saying what counts as poetry. There is room for all sorts: for Homer, for Alexandrian metre, Augustan austerity, lyrical ballads and Uncle Tom Eliot’s inability to make connections on Margate Sands. And the sentiment doesn’t have to be hifalutin or sham antique, as in gay Hesperion’s golden whatsit. It can be slight, light-hearted, whimsical. Let me cast the net as as widely as possible and say that a poem is just a few words in a particular rhythm.

Birtill’s poem has no discernible rhythm. Dare I suggest that a poem should also be about something? It doesn’t have to be the Trojan wars or the salon of Madame Sosostris but, for crying out loud, it shouldn’t be utterly banal. Birtill’s poem doesn’t say anything except the blindingly obvious. It’s a ten-lines cliche.You go to school for a few years and then you leave.. There is no insight, nothing produced by an actual imagination, no verbal facility. In fact, it isn’t a poem. It’s prose pretending to be verse – and lousy prose at that.

Poetry is not, as the modern educashernists vainly believe, about expressing yourself. You have no self to express until you have ingested something, until you have been taught something. The true poet is usually to be noticed with the works of the great  poets of the past in his hands, not filling notebooks with verbal trash. The composition of poetry requires also concentration and, above all, practice.

You can no more write a poem without at least some understanding of what will go into ordinary English than go out and score a century against the Aussie pace bowlers when you’ve never wielded a cricket bat in your life before.

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20 Jul

Just a little point, Ms Klein…

Something has gone very wonky with the BBC Promenade Concerts series. These summer concerts used to consist entirely of music, but now they contain material which is hostile to music..

For example, this summer when you tune-in to the Proms, you might find you’re hearing “The Ibiza dance party” presented by the “disc-jockey” Pete Tong. This is billed as “a musical homage to Ibiza, home to hedonistic dance clubs for twenty-five years or more.” If that is not quite to your taste, you can catch a RadioIXtra Prom programmed by the BBC’s “urban music station” and featuring the “rappers” Wretch 32, Stormzy and Krept & Konan in “a grime symphony.”

I suggest that this programming amounts to false pretences. The Proms, since their founding by Henry Wood in 1895, were always meant to provide musical excellence in a variety of styles – from Monteverdi to Anton Webern – but to exclude stuff which isn’t music at all.

You are perhaps offended by my outrageous elitism? Certainly, Suzy Klein, a presenter on Radio Three, disapproves of me. She says, “Classical music listeners who criticise the diverse line-up are self-elected snobs and scaremongers.”

I own up: I am an elitist – because I’d rather be an elitist than a mediocratist.

It is said – nay, bleated – “everyone has a right to their (sic) own taste.” Indeed they have. But that does not mean that everyone’s taste is as good as everyone else’s. As there is literature, to be contrasted with pulp fiction, so there are standards in music: and it is precisely the great composers who determine what these standards are.

Ms Klein adds, “Fondness for classical and grime genres is not mutually exclusive. I love dancing to an addictive club anthem as much as I adore listening in the stillness of a concert hall to a Brahms symphony.”

With the utmost respect, Ms Klein, that is not the point. Of course it is logically – though not, of course, aesthetically and critically – possible to enjoy both Brahms and “an addictive club anthem.” But we do not look for these things in the same place.

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask for bread, will he give him a stone?

The fact is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of radio and TV stations which provide pop and rock music 24/7. The rubbish is inescapable. Every TV documentary, every sports programme, every Hollywood movie, is stuffed full of it. Why is it too much to ask that music lovers should be allowed one sane repository – Radio Three in general and the Proms in particular – which remains free from this noise?

Ms Klein says that, because she likes both Brahms and “an addictive club anthem,” that it’s acceptable to feature them both in the same concert series.

No it isn’t. I’ll tell you what, Suzy, you wouldn’t ever get that the other way round: I mean, you’re never going to hear a Brahms symphony on a rock music station.

So, if there are indeed “self-elected snobs and scaremongers,” there are also self-elected oiks and philistines.

Filth is everywhere.

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15 Mar

Mozart

The London Philharmonic came to Eastbourne today to play a Rossini overture, Beethoven’s first symphony, a Haydn piano concerto from about 1780 and Mozart’s last symphony, the Jupiter  in C-major K551. The Rossini was fun as always – all those perpetually, postponed climaxes. The piano concerto was very dainty, but hardly the best work from a man of forty-eight who had had the opportunity to hear such as Mozart’s astonishingly original E-flat piano concerto K271. But the Jupiter – that was in a different category entirely.

It is one of three symphonies by Mozart composed in the summer of 1788 – the other two being the E-flat K543 and the G-minor K550 – and he died without hearing any of them performed. So the Jupiter was composed twelve years before Beethoven’s first. It is hardly imaginable: the Mozart is so far advanced of the Beethoven. I cannot believe he managed to stuff so much music into so little space. The constant invention of melodies is miraculous and the whole work keeps slipping from ternary form into fugue and back again, until the entire wonder of it constantly falls over itself, scrambling towards ever greater excitement and vivacity unto the consummation.

It is in C-major and there are military echoes of Non piu andrai – Mozart’s own favourite tune – from Figaro. But also some interludes which presage the Requiem. I find this symphony quite beyond all comprehension. It is gloriously tuneful and transcendentally inventive throughout. But the last movement is scarcely believable: a sonata movement which turns into a five part fugue – to which Mozart then adds a coda. The harmonies – firmly diatonic but then also daringly chromatic – are so complicated that it is as if the score were being read and played right way up and upside down at the same time. Yet it doesn’t sound confused. Quite the opposite. It contrives at once to be both intricate and straightforward, immediate, effervescent, affectionate, tender and mystical.

Above all, perhaps, it sounds so modern, as if it had been composed yesterday. What did Tom Eliot say? “All great artists are contemporaries.”

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04 Nov

Le Nozze di Figaro

It’s easy to feel up to one’s ears in politics, so well described by Eliot as “endless palaver.”

Better to think about Mozart and particularly the miracle that is Figaro. It nearly didn’t get composed at all, for Beaumarchais’ play on which it is based was banned. Mozart told Lorenzo da Ponte that he had no hope of getting the ban lifted, whereupon Da Ponte said, “Leave it to me.” As court poet, he had access to the emperor, a civilised man,  a music-lover and a devotee of Mozart. The emperor reminded Da Ponte that the play was banned, but the poet replied, “It won’t be seditious in our hands.”

And so it came to be written and at great speed – Da Ponte recording that often the verses he delivered to Mozart were returned fully composed the same day!

Mozart was overjoyed by Da Ponte’s words, for Da Ponte was no mere rhymer but a genuine poet with the poet’s facility in assonance, dissonance and above all rhythm. Any hack composer could have made something out of Da Ponte’s marvellous productions. In Mozart’s hands they became an indissoluble masterpiece.

In my view there is nothing in opera – not even Don Giovanni or Cosi  and certainly not the vulgar, strangulated hernia operas of the 19th century – that even comes near the greatness of Figaro which is a torrent of wit, melody and human sympathy. On the face of it, Figaro is a popular tale of a servant getting the better of his bumptious, bullying master – below stairs characters outwitting the toffs. No wonder the emperor was nervous about its appearance, a mere two years before the French Revolution and all the European gentry running scared that the whole continent would go the same way as France. No wonder also that aristocrats’ subscriptions to Mozart’s hugely popular piano concerts in Vienna fell away dramatically at this time.

Figaro is packed with glorious solo arias, but it is the ensemble singing which is truly remarkable: six or more players all interlocking their themes with the most astonishing verve, clarity and sureness of touch. The counterpoint of the various moods and motives are the currents of life itself. In these parts, Figaro hints at the same transcendence we find in St Matthew Passion. At this level of musical understanding – coupled with Mozart’s unmatched acquaintance with and sympathy for the ways of the human heart – there is no distinction to be made between religious and secular music.

All great music is religious.

Non piu andrai was Mozart’s favourite tune. He repeats it in the second act of Don Giovanni  and he would often, as a party piece, improvise sublime variations on it at the piano. The English soprano Nancy Storace was the first Susanna. By this time she had damaged her voice by attempting strenuous coloratura exercises as a young girl and Mozart chose her as much for her vivacious  acting as for her singing. None of the characters is idealised; there is no caricature. All are flawed, often mischievous and occasionally malevolent. But there is not one who is unlovable.

So we have to conclude that Figaro is politics after all: but politics in the same sense that The Divine Comedy is politics.

Like St Matthew Passion, Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s Figaro is about forgiveness.

There are times when this sublime confluence of love and beauty is too much to take.

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