Do we have to love a composer to love their music?

When it comes to great composers, the gifts they have seem so overwhelming at times that it can often feel that they have been touched by God. The music that they present to us is so beautiful, majestic, other worldly that the composers themselves seem to be from another place, outside of our own realms of understanding.

But, delving a little into classical music history, it won’t be long until you bump heads with a tale or two that will turn your thoughts on their head. Composers whose personalities seem to stand in stark contrast to their musicality and perhaps leave us wondering how such genius could be matched with such unpleasantness.

Some of the more obvious tales belong to Wagner and Beethoven, composers who in different ways caused alienation and even hatred among their contemporaries and are stigmatized or unliked to this day. Wagner had some completely outlandish views that were eaten up gladly by arguably the most hateful governmental regime of the 20th century. Beethoven, apparently, had such a paradoxical personality that some modern day scholars and sleuths suggest he suffered from bipolar disorder.

And that’s just the beginning. By the time you read the tales of Benjamin Britten’s alleged pedophilia, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s hedonism, Chopin’s anti-Semitism and Stravinsky’s love of Mussolini you’re likely to be in a very depressed state. Is it possible to be (as a Welsh band from the 90s once said) equally blessed and cursed? Blessed with such wonderful music and yet cursed with such unpleasant character?

Well, here are my thoughts on the matter:

When you pack your bag, don’t forget the big grain of salt

Not everything that’s written in the media is the truth (as well you all know) but it’s worth bearing in mind, especially when we think about composers who lived centuries ago. Rumors, hearsay and sensationalism were as prevalent a few hundred years ago as they are today. That’s not to mention the biased agendas of some who may have had their own more personal reasons for slamming the characters of composers. By all means read, but don’t base your truths around the gossip-mill of the day. Frankly speaking, it’s not all true.

Don’t sugar-coat it

Sometimes our love for a certain composer compels us to don rose-tinted glasses when it comes to all areas of their lives. But, as much as we love their music, sometimes you just can’t deny the facts. And why should we? Stravinsky, Chopin, Wagner and to a more questionable extent Britten, have made clear in their own writings views and opinions that many of us would see as disdainful. At some point we have to accept the facts of the matter and move on, as difficult as that can be. I found it hard when researching Chopin to find out that he was prone to making anti-Semitic comments in a manner that would be abhorred today (even though he was in no way on the same level as Wagner). It was difficult to accept, but, in the end, I had to. Great composers, like you and I, are fallible, prone to errors of judgment and sometimes, just plain unlikeable.

Love the music not the man

I guess my final point on the matter is slightly more contentious, as it’s really a personal decision as to whether you feel a certain composer’s personality or views stop you from being able to listen to them. But a pervasive view today, and one that I subscribe to, is that music overrides the writer.

I watched a documentary where the British actor Stephen Fry went on a sort of Wagnerian pilgrimage, visiting some of the most important places of the composer’s life while coming to terms with the challenge of being both Jewish and an avowed Wagner lover. In the end, he came to the conclusion that he could love the music and not the man, enjoy the beauty of the compositions while putting to one side the views he expounded. And, I guess that’s where I am at. It seems clear to me that you don’t have to be a great person to create great works of art. You do, however, have to be a great composer. So, if our inability to separate the music from the character stops us from enjoying great art, perhaps we are the ones who are poorer for it.

Final thoughts

It’s difficult to know what to put as a video for this article, so I’m going to sidestep the issue a bit by adding a video of a composer who, by all accounts, was a wonderful human being. Here’s what one of those accounts said about him:

“His soul was so crystal clear in its purity, his inner being so unsullied by the self-seeking currents of life, that he stood like a giant, head and shoulders above the grasping medley of human desires, envies and strifes.”

So, in honour of pleasant characters, here is Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings in E played by the English Chamber Orchestra.

Enjoy!

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Sunday Supplement – Cecilia Bartoli sings Lascia ch’io pianga

So far we haven’t really covered the voice at all in this blog (tsk tsk), so today’s Sunday Supplement is a bit of a departure for us. The composition we have chosen to feature is Lascia ch’io pianga, the beautiful soprano aria by George Frideric Handel.

Handel obviously liked the piece himself, as he used the music in not one, but two of his compositions. The version that we know and love today is from the 1711 opera Rinaldo.

The aria is a bit of a heartbreaking affair, with lyrics that sing of sadness and misery. It’s always odd to see lyrics translated into English, as you pick up on some details that you otherwise would probably miss. In this case, I found it a little amusing to see the phrase ‘for pity’s sake’ thrown in there. For some reason that sounds like such a modern English way to whine but it seems that these types of sayings have been doing the rounds for centuries. Perhaps in this case ‘for crying out loud’ would have been a better fit.

The lyrics in English are:

Let me weep
my cruel fate,
and I sigh for liberty.
May sorrow break these chains
Of my sufferings, for pity’s sake.

Anyway, getting back to the music, this is a truly beautiful recording and one of my wife’s favorites of all time. I have an interesting, probably slightly heretical, affair with opera in that some of the truly operatic voices that shake and warble a lot end up wearing me down somewhat. It’s a personal thing and probably something I shouldn’t admit to on a classical music blog but, well, horses for courses and all that.

But on this recording Cecilia Bartoli sings with such pristine purity that you cannot help falling into the deep sadness and melancholy of the aria. It is a truly exemplary rendition of a piece that has proved timeless in its beauty.

Enjoy!

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An ode to simple beauty

Today’s post, as you can see from the title, is focused upon simple beauty. No, I’m not referring to the contestants for Miss South Carolina 2012, I’m talking about the word simple in a figurative sense, when applied to those pieces of music that manage to reach deep into our hearts while still maintaining a simple, perfect form.

You see, nowadays virtuosity (both in playing and in composition) is a go-to praise-magnet. Super-virtuosos writing for hyper-virtuosos, who can display their talents to the world in a wizardly flash of speed and brilliance. And there’s nothing wrong with that… as such.

But, sometimes – actually, often in my case – we yearn for simple beauty in our music.

While virtuosos get rave reviews with the critics, it’s not as often that we get to appreciate the quality of playing in single notes. It’s not often we get to appreciate how a musician makes use of silence and those openings between the passages that bring us space to breathe, reflect and wonder.

A wise man once said ‘Ponder not the path’ (was that from Superman? Lord of the Rings?), but perhaps it is this ponderous spirit that should be embraced in the rush, rush world of 2012. It takes courage to play simple pieces, more courage to play them simply and even more courage still to leave the silence necessary to give them their true beauty.

Grieg’s simple beauty

With Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces you have an exceptional example of the simple beauty of the piano. 66 short pieces published in 10 volumes that set a wonderous scene and offer our souls a chance to pause, reflect and listen.

There are superior versions by Sviatoslav Richter, Daniel Levy and Leif Ove Andsnes, while there is even a recording of Grieg himself playing parts of the collection. Today’s video showcases the piece Arietta, a personal favorite of the composer and the very first composition in the cycle. It is also the theme that closes the cycle under the name of ‘Remembrances’, played this time with the slant of joyful, humorous nostalgia that we often feel when looking back at a moment from our past.

Final thoughts

In a world where things are dumbed-down on a daily basis, the word simple has gained a decidedly negative reputation. Yet this article is a simple ode to simplicity in music.

Just because a piece of music has the air of simplicity, it doesn’t mean it is easy to play. Far from it. Oftentimes, these are the hardest pieces to interpret.

When Picasso said that to paint you had to first be able to draw a straight line, there was a real truth in his words. The real mettle of a musician could easily be judged, not on his ability to play the most complex pieces in the musical canon, but on his ability to play and bring beauty to the very simplest pieces.

So, with no further ado, here is Grieg’s Op.12 No.1 ‘Arietta’ played by Sviatoslav Richter.

Enjoy!

P.S. – I’d like to apologize to our subscribers for not posting over the past week. It’s been seven days of movement, upheaval and very little sleep, but things should normalize from now onwards!

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Classical music reviews – seriously, what’s the point?

Of course music is a subjective experience. Where I may hear unmatched beauty in a particular performance, others may hear the snooze-inducing self-indulgence of an uninspiring dirge. Opinion is divided along extremely personal lines, taking into account the experiences, preferences and tastes of the listener, as well as any of the other trillion factors that influence our moods and emotions (the bus was late, an argument with the wife, ‘I could have sworn that lady over there gave me a dirty look’ etc. and so on).

If you’re the type of person who likes to take into account a broad number of opinions, you’ll soon notice that one person’s ‘hogwash’ is another person’s Holy Grail.

So, seriously, what’s the point in a review?

Of course, you ask most musicians or composers this question and you’ll soon understand the impact reviews can have on their lives and work. You see, reviewers (as culpable of bias, uninformed opinion and strange personal preferences as any one of you or I) can, in one clumsy swoop of the pen, damn a performance, composition or recording irreparably. They can make the difference between sales and losses, success and failure, queues and tumbleweed floating around the ticket booth of a concert hall.

So, seriously, what’s the point of them?

We often make arbitrary decisions in our lives. We watch an advert on this or that and choose to buy or not to buy for the silliest of reasons (as someone who’s in advertising, I have some experience of this). But, when you take the time to look at a variety of classical music reviews of the same music or concert, you could be in danger of being left truly befuddled.

The BBC Proms – ‘Yeyyyy’, ‘Booooo’

One of the influences for this particular article was the recent Proms performance of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim in this year’s season of the BBC Proms. I read three reviews of the same performance and still came no closer to knowing whether it was an unmitigated success or verging on the precipice of disaster.

Let’s take a quick look:

The Telegraph

The Telegraph’s review of the Prom 12 performance of Beethoven and Boulez is filled with passionate praise.

‘The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, under conductor Daniel Barenboim, made Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony arch with radiant beauty’

‘It showed Boulez has the power to move as well as excite’

Beethoven’s Fifth ‘blazed with an optimistic fervour which took on a surprising colour at the end’

Wow – that must really have been some concert. Forget the kids’ tuition fees, book me an entire row for the next!

The Guardian

‘Barenboim’s way with Beethoven – carefully moulded, deploying large forces – wasn’t ideal for the Fifth, which had great nobility but at times not nearly enough drive’

Ahhh, right. Well, the kids can still go to school, but perhaps I’ll get one ticket for the next concert. After all, Ricky Gervais said that Beethoven is generally considered to be the best composer.

The Arts Desk

‘Heavyweight Beethoven proved leaden-footed at times’

‘The first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 6 may be marked “Allegro non troppo”, but the composer’s in-built caveat against high speeds surely doesn’t imply quite the ponderous plod that Barenboim took his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on last night.’

‘You couldn’t dine on Barenboim’s Beethoven every day; it would be altogether too rich for anyone’s digestion.’

Honey, grab your coat, we’re off to Butlins. Yep, forget the Beethoven, apparently that last concert was a proper train-wreck.

The rub

And here we come to the crux of the matter. You see, apparently this particular concert included a particularly unfortunate snafu. The programme notes had been bodged to such a degree that everyone trudged out of the concert at the wrong time, missing a significant portion of the second act.

I found it amusing that the Guardian article claimed that this was the main reason this concert would be remembered, while the Telegraph review didn’t even mention the mishap. Surely, you would have noticed the noise of an entire audience making their way back to their seats half-way through the playing of a piece.

I’m not suggesting that this is what happened with the Telegraph reviewer but it does remind me of a story I once heard from my father-in-law. A concert that was to be played in Venice was cancelled at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. The next morning, he read the papers. The first newspaper discussed the cancellation, while the second was highly enthusiastic, speaking in gushing terms about how the concert was a fabulous success.

It brings me back to my first point:

Classical music reviews – no, really, seriously, what’s the point?

To leave you with today I am linking to a video of (what else could it be) Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, 1st movement played by the wonderful, useless, exquisite, hapless (insert newspaper name where appropriate) Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. No, seriously, this one’s great! Take my word for it… or don’t.

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An interview with the guitarist Alice Artzt

As promised in an earlier post, I am very excited to bring to you an interview with the classical guitarist Alice Artzt.

Alice Artzt

Artzt is a guitarist who was described in Guitar International magazine as ‘America’s best player’. She is also a former student of Alexandre Lagoya, Julian Bream and the great Ida Presti.

In this unique and open interview, we discuss a range of topics, from Presti, to guitar technique, Artzt’s own playing career and even Charlie Chaplin. I’d like to personally thank Alice Artzt for taking the time to give this interview and for sharing with our readers information that I can safely say is not available anywhere else on the internet.

As part of your own career in music, you had the opportunity to study under the great guitarist Ida Presti. How did the opportunity come about and what was she like as a teacher?

Ida Presti

I heard Presti and Lagoya perform in NYC’s Town Hall on their first USA tour and was completely entranced.  So I went back stage to talk to them, which fortunately I could do easily in French.  I asked a whole pile of questions the last of which was to find out where I could study with them.  They said they’d be teaching at the Jeunesses Musicales music camp in Magog Canada that summer – so I went there.  When I was there, because of my good knowledge of French, and probably also because of my eager devotion and determination as a guitarist, I got to know them pretty well and even did a bit of translating for them.  So after that, any time they would come to the USA on tour, I’d spend as much time as I could with them getting free lessons and also helping them with translations and in any other ways I could.  I also went to Paris when they were at home there, and holed up in a cheap hotel and waited with other students for times when they’d phone us to say we could come see  them and play for them.  We’d bring boxes of candies or flowers and would spend the afternoon there getting lessons.  I also went to the summer master classes they held at the Academie Internationale d’Ete in Nice France.

Ida Presti was a marvelous teacher – very good at analyzing what needed fixing and figuring out complex fingerings.  She could play anything instantly, beautifully at any speed you could imagine, even when sight reading.  She was an inspiration in every possible way, as well as being a very joyful fun person to be around.  She liked to play practical jokes on students, and on Lagoya also, and was an enormously kind warm person.  I’ve always thought of her as a sort of saint – the only one I’ve ever known.   She had that sort of charisma – that when she was in a room, or on stage, you could not take your eyes off her.  She seemed more alive than other people.  Lagoya was also teaching at all these classes, but it seemed as though he generally dealt with a bunch of male students he liked but who seemed less likely to have actual careers as guitarists, while Presti perked up when some of the more advanced, hard working, or intensely involved students started to play, and then she’d just take over teaching their lessons.

You have a series of extremely interesting videos where you discuss Presti’s technique. What made her technique so unique and what is it that makes her such an important figure in the classical guitar genre?

The Presti technique is unique in that it makes it possible for anyone who is reasonably relaxed to play with a great deal of power and a big full tone without very much effort.  Looking at pictures of Tarrega and Llobet, I suspect that what she was doing was historically not all that rare, but these days, it seems not so many people play that way.  I find this a pity since it not only gets better results much more easily than what are considered now the standard techniques, but also it is so much less likely to cause problems of tension and semi paralysis that a number of guitarists and lutenists have succumbed to in mid career.  And in a few cases, I’ve found that changing to the Presti position actually cured people who had wrecked their right hands by playing in problematical ways.  This particular syndrome is surprisingly common, and is devastating to anyone who has it.   I do intend to make a video about it at some point when I have the time.

But I am a poster child for the transformative effect of the Presti position.  When I first studied with her in Canada, I had been playing for about 6 years, practicing 6 or so hours a day and completely determined to have a concert career.   I had started doing what my teacher told me Segovia did, and after some years, when that seemed somewhat unreliable and created problems of stability, I tried to change to what I perceived Julian Bream did.  That got me a better sound than I had had, but still was unreliable and unstable.  However I thought I was on the right track finally.  Then I went to Canada and was fairly horrified to find that everyone who took one look at my right hand that first day,  told me that I’d have to change right hand positions – which in fact I did.  At first it seemed very odd – nearly impossible.  But after a couple of days I figured out it actually worked quite well, and by the end of the class – 3 weeks – I could play everything I had played before but now with a much bigger better tone, much more control, and much more stability.  It seemed to me a miraculous transformation, and I have spent a lot of my life since then trying to get other people to experience that same wonderful feeling – of being totally relaxed, playing freely and strongly with very little effort.  Knowing what I now know, I am totally convinced that if I had not met Presti and had not changed my technique to hers, I’d NEVER have got to play at the level I did, nor would I have had the career I did.

Ida Presti is often cast as a tragic character. To what extent do you feel that this assertion is true?

Well certainly Presti had a very odd childhood – not in fact much of a childhood at all since her father home schooled her and had her practicing for hours every day from age 6 on.  However it is also clear that there was a great deal of love between her and her father, and she ended up a very loving and warm person, unlike many child protégées.  Whenever I encountered her on tour or at home, she was a very joyful, kind, enthusiastic person, with an almost childlike delight in her own fantastic skills “Look what I am doing !! Isn’t this neat?!!” She obviously loved playing the guitar, and loved helping us, her students, to do it as well as we could.  I saw nothing of the “tortured, suffering, slave to her art” in her – quite the opposite.

There is only one book on Ida Presti, which you yourself were asked to translate. We spoke briefly about how you were disappointed at some of the misinformation contained within the book. Which facts do you feel were inaccurate?

Yes I was very disappointed in how the book turned out, and almost wished that I had had nothing to do with it.  Presti was such an honest person, I really feel it is a betrayal of her memory not to have the most honest and factual book possible.  Not to mention that since this book was done with the collaboration of her daughter, it will certainly be regarded as totally reliable in the future – a very great pity.  I did find the whole depiction of her childhood most interesting and there were a few details that I had not known from talking to her.  And of course there were other bits of information that I did know that were not in the book – but that is no one’s fault.  I would have liked to have had more information about and from her first husband – that is missing and probably for obvious reasons, but none the less it would have been good to know.  There are numerous little details that are probably not worth bothering about.  After Presti’s death, Lagoya tended to exaggerate the numbers of solo concerts her played, and what famous people he played for, and some of that crept into the book as well.  For instance Lagoya maintained that the duo played for Einstein to entertain him at his home.  But unless this happened very early in Presti’s career when Einstein was still living in Switzerland, the dates don’t work out.  Not only do I live in Princeton NJ where Einstein lived, but I was with the duo when they performed here, and was with them during everything they did here in Princeton.  Even that is irrelevant though, since I know they never visited Einstein for the very good reason that by the time they first came to the USA, Einstein had died.  So no way it happened as Lagoya described it.

But the general slant of the book is to depict her as a tragic slave to her art – in emotional and physical pain all the time, and then inadvertently killed by clumsy American doctors while on tour.   I think I have a little insight on why her daughter might have had at least some impression along these lines, while I did not think that way at all.  Imagine a mother leaving her daughter and young son to go on tour numerous times.  What does she say?  What does she write back to them?  Certainly she says how much she will miss them – how sorry she is to leave them – and she writes back many letters telling what she is doing but saying how much she wishes they were there and how very much she misses them.  And of course she did miss them – and certainly they missed her a lot also.  But while they were getting such letters, I was getting very loving sweet enthusiastic letters about how on this next tour, they’d be in New York for more days than usual, and how she was looking forward to that, and how much fun we’d have, and how we’d have time to go sight seeing, and she’d get to hear all my Bach pieces (I was a fanatic Bach lover at the time and played a LOT of Bach in my lessons with her) – and by the way, do let the Shaw agency know when their plane would arrive – etc etc.  Presti actually told me that her daughter Elisabeth was jealous of me.  I also noticed that, although I sent a huge pile of color photocopies of programs and schedules and photos and other information about their USA tours to Elisabeth  – at her request – for use in the book, she used hardly any of it – maybe even none of it at all, if I remember well.  So clearly something is going on here, and certainly our two perspectives on how Presti felt about her concert tours was very different.  The idea that she was hunched over in constant pain from playing the guitar, and could hardly walk, is another thing the book says that makes no sense to me at all.  Not long before her death, I took Presti and Lagoya to the Cloisters Museum in NYC.  The Cloisters is a museum made up of many actual Medaeval cloisters, taken from their European locations and re-assembled near the Hudson River with lovely gardens and many statues and pieces of art on display as they would have been seen originally.  Presti wore very high heels all the time, and we spent several hours wandering all over this large expanse of delightful treasures.  She was fascinated and had a great time, and never showed any signs of tiring or wanting to leave until we had covered all the territory very thoroughly.  Personally I can’t imagine how she managed to walk at all with those high heel shoes on, and for sure if she had been in the shape her daughter describes, she’d never have managed it.

What I can imagine is that she did have some pain from what killed her – almost 100% certainly esophageal cancer.  I have talked to friends in Europe who told me she had gone secretly to specialists in Paris some time before she died, to find out what was wrong.   They also told me that she mentioned to them having a premonition of her own death when her son would be 14 years old – which turned out to be correct.  (The book mentions her having premonitions of other people’s deaths, but not that she had one for herself.)  The whole story in the book of the circumstances of her death in the USA on tour is very slanted and more or less imaginary. The short version of what actually happened is that after their concert in St Louis she started coughing up blood.  They went to the hospital there and they X-rayed her and found nothing – which is exactly what they would have found at that time (pre CAT scan), since the heart would have obscured anything going on with the esophagus in any X-Rays.  The doctors there urged her to stay there for further testing etc, since she was obviously not well at all and suffering from something very serious.  But of course the idea that the show must go on won out, and she and Lagoya left the next morning for their concert in Rochester that evening.  Presti’s condition deteriorated further on the plane, and upon arrival, she was rushed to the very fine teaching hospital there.  But by this time, there was very little that could be done to staunch the interior bleeding that was filling her lungs.  I talked to the doctors who operated on her in Rochester (After Lagoya phoned me that evening, right after she died, with the news and the request to come help, I arrived there the next morning.), and later on to another doctor who specialized specifically in esophageal cancer, and what they all said made it clear that once she was bleeding to that degree, it would have been nearly impossible to keep her alive, no matter how wonderful the doctors were, or how hard they worked. Continue reading

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Melancholia – classical music in the movies

Last Saturday I finally got around to watching the movie Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier. Even though I’d heard about the movie last year, it seemed like every time I’d thought about watching the film I’d chosen to watch something else. You see, the main theme of the film is depression and, it’s fair to say, it’s not really what you’d call a Saturday night popcorn movie.

To add to my lack of enthusiasm, I’d also seen Lars von Trier’s previous film, Antichrist, earlier that year, which (regardless of artistic merit) is the first film I have ever actively implored my friends not to watch. If you’ve seen it, you may well know what I mean. If you haven’t, I’d advise you to take my word for it and thank me later!

Now, having finally watched Melancholia, I can safely say that it was my favourite film of 2011.

Melancholia and Antichrist have one key thing in common (other than sharing the same director and a similarly heavy subject matter) and that is their use of a classical music score.

In Antichrist we’re treated to an exceptional rendition of Lascia Ch’io Pianga in the opening scene, utilised in a manner that I’d hazard a guess you’ve never seen before. In Melancholia, it is Wagner’s rousing orchestral music from Tristan and Isolde that plays such a critical role in the film.

Rather than being a film that left me with a deep sense of sadness or melancholy, the music, the script and the cinematography came together in such a breathtakingly beautiful way that I was left with a deep feeling of hope. From a film that depicts the end of the world, that’s no small achievement.

3 uses of music in film

You see, as far as I see it, there are three main ways to use classical music in film. In the first instance, the music represents the score.

Take, for example, Immortal Beloved, the (mostly-fictitious) story of Beethoven’s life, death and love affairs, starring Gary Oldman. The score of the film is like a Greatest Hits medley of Beethoven’s music, using snippets of his most famous compositions scattered across the storyline to accompany you through the journey of his life. It’s an effective little trick for what it’s worth but, somehow, for me, it doesn’t bring you any closer to the deep emotions represented within his work.

The second option you have as a movie maker is the route taken by the directors of Seven and Shutter Island, to name just a couple of films. In Shutter Island there is a section where we hear Mahler’s Quartet for Strings and Piano in A Minor. The music forms part of the plot, it gives the audience a greater understanding of the players in the story and acts as a catalyst for understanding their past.

But in Melancholia, we have, what I’d describe as the most effective use of classical music in film. Tristan and Isolde is as integral to the film as any words uttered by the cast or any of the stunning camerawork of the director. It doesn’t add to or change the mood of the film – it is the mood of the film. It is not played on a jukebox, stereo system or gramophone by one of the main characters, it takes over the scenes so powerfully that it becomes the true sound of the actions taking place on screen. In the beginning of the film it accompanies still shots of characters and events that will shape the entire course of the movie. By the end of the film, it is the sound of the catastrophic ending of the world, as inevitable as Tristan and Isolde’s fate in Wagner’s opera.

Final thoughts

Some purists scoff at the idea that classical music can find a dignified place in the world of movies. It’s an idea that I don’t understand. Opera itself fuses imagery, words and acting in a way that takes classical music far away from the basic premise of sound alone. When a film like Melancholia takes a composition by Wagner and matches it so beautifully to a story, it acts as a new stage for these incredible works of art, a new frame through which we can appreciate and re-examine our love for the this stunningly beautiful music.

P.S. – I’m a film lover but by no means an expert, so if you have any thoughts on other examples of the successful use of classical music in the movies, I’d love to hear them!

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Sunday Supplement – David Oistrakh plays Tchaikovsky

Critically panned and turned down not once, but twice by the violinists approached to give its debut performance, it’s fair to say that Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto received a less than overwhelmingly positive first reception.

Iosif Kotek, the violinist who lovingly helped to compose the concerto, decided that performing it would be akin to career suicide. Leopold Auer, the violinist to whom it was first dedicated, declared it ‘unplayable’, while criticism ranged from ‘long and pretentious’ to music that ‘stinks to the ear’ and ‘odorously Russian’ – all in one review.

If ever a piece of music was going nowhere, this was the one.

Yet, today, this concerto has become one of the most loved, most played and most revered of all compositions within the genre. How those musicians and critics would have loved the luxury of a quick glimpse into the future before making their initial statements and decisions on the work.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing and the lack of it has made fools of many. This beautiful piece, which is also a personal favourite of mine, has passed the test of time, standing at the height of the violin repertoire and gaining universal acceptance, despite its unappreciated beginnings.

Today’s video showcases the great talent of David Oistrakh with a complete performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35.

Enjoy!

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Nocturnes – a whistle-stop tour

Turn the lights down, grab a glass of wine, kick your shoes off, relax and get ready for Classical Music Blogspot’s whistle-stop tour of the nocturne.

While Chopin may be the master of the nocturne, he certainly wasn’t the only composer to turn his hand to creating music in this beautiful and haunting style. The following 5 pieces will give you a glimpse of the works of some of the composers who created this captivating music inspired by the night.

John Field (Nocturne No. 10 in E Minor)
Let’s begin our tour with the Irish composer John Field. ‘Irish, you say? Surely you’re not telling me the nocturne has anything to do with an Irishman?’ Well, surely I am. Field was the father of the romantic nocturne, the first to call his pieces by that name and a great influence on Chopin himself. Check out the similarities in the video below:

Frédéric Chopin (Nocturne D Flat Major, Op. 27)
Chopin’s nocturnes need no introduction. 21 he wrote for solo piano. 21 rich, melancholy, beautiful, emotion-filled gems that are more popular today than ever before. Far more popular than during his own times, where the composer was largely ignored and dismissed as a salon musician. Talk about not appreciating what you have until it’s gone… pffft.

Alexander Scriabin (Nocturne in A Flat Major)
Our next stop on the tour visits 19th Century Russia and a 12 year old Alexander Scriabin. What were you doing at 12 years old? I may have been playing with Star Wars figures, struggling with my first steps on the guitar or pulling my hair out trying to remember the periodic table. I certainly wasn’t composing a nocturne like this. Kind of sickening really:

Francis Poulenc (Nocturne No. 1 in C Major)
Now firmly in the 20th century, Francis Poulenc is the next composer on our list. A member of ‘Les Six’ as they were coined, Poulenc composed music for solo piano, chamber music, oratorio, choral music, opera, ballet and orchestral music. His 1st of 8 nocturnes is a shimmering piece that beautifully channels the inspirations of the nocturne’s wonderful history:

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji (Gulistän – Nocturne for Piano)
And so we come to the end of our (less than comprehensive) tour, leaving you with a nocturne from the curmudgeonly, Essex-born hermit Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji… or Leon Dudley, or one of the many other names that the English composer and writer dabbled with over the years. If you know nothing about Sorabji, I would highly recommend listening to one of his few interviews on YouTube. He brings new meaning to the title ‘grumpy old man’, but, depending on who you listen to, was one of the most important composers of the 20th century. Not that he cared… or would even let you through the door to tell him that.

Final thoughts:
So ends our whistle-stop tour of the nocturne. Of course we’ve missed far more than an acceptable number of composers who wrote in the style, from Liszt to Schumann, through to Debussy, Satie and Liebermann. But, from its Irish roots to our current-day love affair, the nocturne remains one of the most beautiful expressions of music available to man today.

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Alice Herz-Sommer – musician, optimist and Holocaust survivor

Today’s post is a story that is certain to melt the barnacles off of even the hardest hearts.

Alice Herz-Sommer is the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world. She lost much of her family to the horror of the concentration camps and was forced to act as part of the Nazi propaganda machine, performing concerts as a demonstration of how ‘well’ prisoners were treated by their German captors.

But, this is by no means a tale of sadness. This tale, with music at its centre, is one of the greatest stories of hope and inspiration of our times.

‘The world is beautiful. Nature is something extraordinary… music is something phenomenal. People who have no relationship to music, they are poor, they don’t know what is the most beautiful thing in life.’ – Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice was born in Prague in 1903. She became a successful and well-known concert pianist during the years that followed, before falling victim to the Nazi regime and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Theresienstadt was unusual in a number of ways, due to the fact that the camp was used to promote Nazi ideals and behaviour to the rest of the world through a series of highly publicized and manipulated artistic performances. Regular performances of classical music were held and gifted musicians were given preferential treatment, which in many instances meant the difference between survival and death.

In the video clip below you will see one of Alice’s friends (and a fellow Holocaust survivor) speak about the importance that music played during this time. The playing of music had little to do with enjoyment. Music was one of the great morale builders during a time where inspiration was in obvious short supply. It helped people get from one day to the next and, no doubt, reminded them of the beauty that lay beyond the walls they were incarcerated behind.

Alice survived the war, along with her son, and in 1986 moved to London. Now, at 108 years old she lives in a modest apartment block. Every day, people visit her to hear her story, chat about daily life, listen to music or partake in a game of scrabble.

In this video we hear a neighbor explain that passers-by regularly stand at the bottom of the block of flats, peering up at the tiny windows, just listening to the music that Alice still plays to this very day. Even with no knowledge of her incredible back-story, Alice is an inspiration.

The secret to a long and happy life

There’s not an ounce of anger in Alice. Not one ounce of regret. Not a single sign of sadness. She is a self-proclaimed optimist who seeks to see the beauty in the world around her, and the thing she cares about, more than any other, is music.

‘What is the secret of you feeling so good at your age?’ Alice was asked in a recent interview.

‘Optimism’, she answers.

‘Looking for the good. Life is beautiful. You have to be happy, to admire, to thank. Thankful that we are living. Wherever you look is beauty.’

Final thoughts

To end with today, I’ve added the video that promotes a recent documentary, ‘Dancing Under the Gallows’ that focuses upon her life. At time of filming she was a spritely 106 years old and showing no signs of slowing down for anything or anyone.

Enjoy!

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Chopin – why should pianists have all the fun?

Over 230 of Chopin’s works survive. To this day they remain some of the most emotive, beautiful and, often, heart-rending musical compositions of all time.

Every piece of music Chopin composed involved the piano and, by far the vast majority of them were for solo piano. So, you would forgive musicians of other instruments a small inkling of green-eyed envy at not having the opportunity to play his legendary works.

But, the time for wailing and teeth-gnashing in the bedroom hasn’t arrived just yet. Thankfully for us, transcriptions of some of Chopin’s compositions exist that do justice to the great man’s vision and musicality.

Chopin, beautifully written for the violin

Take for instance the Italian violinist Anna Tifu’s version of Chopin’s Nocturne in C Sharp Minor. The Nathan Milstein transcription of this piece for violin and piano brings us as close to the depth of sentiment and beauty displayed within the original composition as any rendering on the piano.

Tifu’s interpretation is wonderful and surprisingly accomplished in that, if in our minds eye we could forget that we had ever heard the original piano composition, we could easily believe that this was Chopin writing expressly for the violin.

So what makes a good transcription?

For me, the Tifu interpretation of the Nocturne in C Sharp Minor ticks all the boxes required for a great transcription – and here’s why:

1. The transcription remains as close to the composer’s original vision as possible (i.e. the transcriber is not seeking to impose his/her own voice over the composition).

2. The instrument does not change the feeling or style of the piece to the extent that it becomes unrecognizable (let’s be honest, it’s difficult to imagine a nocturne being played on a didgeridoo).

3. Any adaptations that depart from the composition remain in keeping with the musical choices of the original piece.

Have a listen yourselves and see what you think:

You see, transcribing a piece of music for another instrument is no easy feat. Nowadays, we have some compositions that have been brought so successfully to their adopted instrument that they are more famous as transcriptions than original compositions (think Asturias (Leyendas) for the classical guitar, originally for solo piano)

But, there are some transcriptions of pieces that persistently grind on my nerves. There is a violin and piano transcription of Chopin’s Nocturne Op.9 No.2 in E Flat Major (no names mentioned) that digresses so far from the original in certain passages that it takes you completely out of the music. Inappropriate note choices, phrasing and adaptations can leave a transcription dead in the water long before you evaluate the quality of the musicians performing it.

Final thoughts

To leave you with today, I am linking to video of Andres Segovia playing Chopin’s short and stunningly beautiful Prelude in A. It’s hard to know what Chopin would have said of the many transcriptions of his work but, I’d like to think that in these two instances he would have wholeheartedly and joyfully approved.

Enjoy!

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