Byrd on Jerusalem

Among the extrordinarily talented composers of Tudor England, none stands higher than William Byrd. He was something of an outsider, being a convinced Catholic in a country that was increasingly identifying itself by its adherence to Protestantism, and while he composed some beautiful pieces for Anglican liturgy his most powerful sacred music is, explicitly or implicity, composed with the old religion in mind. This is the case with his setting of ‘Ne irascaris Domine’, a short passage from Isaiah (64:9-10), according to which ‘The city of your holy one has been made a wilderness, Zion a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.’ The unaccompanied voices briefly but lovingly caress the word ‘Jerusalem’, passing it among themselves from one to another, before coming to the dreadful finality of ‘desolata est.’ It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in the desolation of Jerusalem an allusion to the physical ruins of Catholicism in England and the fate of its holy places; at about the time Byrd was composing a poet was writing of ‘Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang’, the choirs in question being the areas within churches where choirs sing. (Evidence for Shakespeare having been a Catholic is fascinating, although if he were I don’t think the way we look at his work would change very much.) And the symbolic status of Jerusalem suggests words of Blake, centuries later, that every so often are proposed as a potential English, as opposed to British, national anthem:

I will not cease from mental fight

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

Tchaikovsy does Mozart

When a schoolboy I was bowled over by the excitement of Tchaikovsky’s stirring 1812 Overture, and I imagine girls of a similar age being entranced by the delicate beauty of Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky is a thoroughly enjoyable composer. But there are some things that should never be attempted.

I’ve been listening to his Suite No. 4 in G, the Mozartiana, in which he orchestrates four pieces by Mozart. For the most part it’s an enjoyable work, but one of the four items, a setting of the motet Ave Verum Corpus, doesn’t work. The immensely powerful, spare original is turned into something lush with plenty of strings and, amazingly, a harp, while the achingly beautiful passage towards the end where the harmony seems on the verge of falling apart, only to be resolved as it is taken to a different level, has disappeared.

Sometimes composers can rework the material of their predecessors in a way that genuinely adds value; think of Respighi’s adaptions of renaissance pieces in his Suite of Ancient Airs and Dances. But in providing a new version of the Ave Verum, Tchaikovsky set his foot on the path that was followed a good way further by Malcolm Sargent in his orchestrations of Bach that seem to me to suck all the strength and goodness out of the original. It’s hard to imagine works which achieve such strength on the basis of such slender resources ever being improved upon. Some things are best left well alone!

In Praise of The Magic Flute

A number of productions of Mozart’s opera are taking place in Australia at around this time, and while I probably won’t see any of them they’ve led me to turn again to a version of it on one of the first CDs I bought, that in which Kiri Te Kanawa sings Pamina (further back lies a dimly recollected and most enjoyable movie version directed by Ingmar Bergman.) It’s an astonishingly satisfying work, in which two frenzied and very similar arias of the soprano Queen of the Night (‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn'; ‘Der Hoelle Rache konnte in meinen Hertzen’), and the wonderful solemnity of the bass Sarastro’s ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ that comes just after the second of the Queen’s outbursts and nicely balances it, completely overshadow the voices of the young couple, immensely touching as their singing is.

But the main reason for my loving this opera is that it is pure Mozart. His sure-footedness of melody and poised delicacy resemble the flowing motion of a cat walking along the top of a wall; there’s a kind of inevitability in every step. More than any other composer, Mozart gives us ‘sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.’ According to Karl Barth, when the angels play for God they play Bach, but when they play for their own pleasure it’s Mozart. I know what he means.

In Praise of Handel’s Messiah

Attending one of the performances of this oratorio that proliferate around this time of the year reminded me of just how enjoyable it is. Handel could certainly write a good tune, and there’s something of the Broadway musical about the way in which the numbers keep coming; from ‘Comfort ye’ onwards there is sustained melodic pleasure. And the music is beautifully appropriate to the words of the Authorized Version, sometimes wittily so. The performance had three good soloists, and a large, appreciative audience that knew when to stand. Nevertheless, it raised a couple of issues.

It can be hard to get the role of the choir right. The performance we heard was one with a large group of about a hundred voices, nuch larger than that envisaged by Handel. Now this has the advantage of volume, allowing a large space to be filled with a wall of sound. But there is a concomitant loss of clarity and fuzziness about words that, in Messiah, are far more important than they are in, say, opera, and should be comprehensible. A small chorus of good voices, if necessary amplified, is surely the way to go.

Secondly, we heard the oratorio in the version reworked by Mozart.  Composers often produce variations of the works of their predecessors, and there’s no doubt that Mozart’s genius was greater than Handel’s. Nevertheless, some things are lost in his setting, in particular at one of the climaxes. Towards the end the bass soloist sings ‘The trumpet shall sound’, and in Handel’s original score a trumpet immediately begins to play a stirring melody; one of the instruments becomes part of the narrative. Not so in Mozart’s version, where the melody is played by trombones and horns. Apparently by Mozart’s time trumpets could no longer play the high notes they could in Handel’s day. But now they can again, and I don’t see why the original can’t be reinstated.

Not long after the concert a live broadcast of another performance was advertized, and I decided to listen to it to refresh my memory of the original version. But it too was of Mozart’s orchestration. Bring back Handel, I say!

Twentieth Century Countdown

A busy week kept me from listening to as much as I would have liked of a countdown on the radio of the top hundred pieces of twentieth century music, as voted by the listeners of the ABC. But it was wonderful to hear some old favourites, among them Vaughan Williams’ Fantasias on Greensleeves and a Theme from Thomas Tallis, Kats-Chernin’s Wild Swans, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. It was even better to hear for the first time Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, in which the pianist seems to be improvising (and is that a languid sax in the background?), and playing of an oddly similar kind in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

I’m struck by how much good music was composed by Russians during the last century. Doubtless this is partly because the late entry of Russia into the mainstream of European life means that its recent contributions are more substantial than they were in preceding centuries; the same could be said of its literature. But perhaps the circumstances of Russia during the twentieth century made music a more viable form of expression than literature, giving it more prominence. Recently I’ve been enjoying a book of reproductions from the Tretyakov Gallery a friend has brought back from Moscow, and I’ve been intrigued by a painting by Tatyana Nazarenko, ‘Moscow Evening'; it’s hard to work out how the creativity it suggests positions itself in regard to the surrounding world.

I suspect that many of my favourite pieces of twentieth century music would fall into the category of easy listening, some way apart from the more bracing and difficult compositions of that century. We are told that we need to listen to such pieces several times to appreciate them, and while there’s some sense in this it’s also true that until music began to be recorded in the twentieth century this was generally impossible. The Magic Flute and the Pastoral Symphony segue between high and low culture (just as A Midsummer Night’s Dream does), and seem to aim at a wider audience than much modern music is interested in reaching.

And more generally, I fear that the past century produced no composer of the stature of the greats of the preceding centuries. Of course there will be composers whose value we do not yet appreciate; think how long it took for Vivaldi and Bach to be seen for what they were worth. But here, as in other respects, I like to think that the twenty first century will surpass that which went before!

In Praise of Chopin

The coming of the piano was one of the great leaps forward in western music. There was now a keyboard instrument capable of long legato passages, of crescendo and diminuendo, and of the sustained notes, whether or not prolonged by the use of a pedal, that make the Moonlight Sonata so beautiful. Already employed to good effect by Haydn and Mozart, the piano would be the great instrument of the romantic period, and the one at which composers would sit.

Having said this, there remains a lot of pleasure in listening to music composed for the antecedent harpsichord. Pieces like Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith have a kind of chunky joviality that is immensely enjoyable, while Couperin’s Les Baricades Misterieuses is full of sunshine (by comparison,the same composer’s Le Tic-Toc-Choc is, well, mechanical.) While the piano vastly expanded what could be done at a keyboard, there were some things a harpsichord did better. It seems to me the great achievement of Fryderyk Chopin to have composed for the piano in a way that retains some of the strengths of the harpsichord. His impromptus and polonaises have a kind of brittle brilliancy, and sometimes in his harmonies one can almost hear Bach in the background.   Listz, in some ways Chopin’s successor, seems to steer things in a more gentle direction

Back in the USSR?

Over the course of a few happy days not long ago (thank you, A!) I spent some time listening to the music of the Beatles and the Beachboys. Both used to give me great pleasure, but on hearing the old songs again I was struck by how much more interesting those of the Beatles are. Their music is more complex, takes more forms, and has lyrics that deal with a wider range of subject matter. The Beachboys give the impression of  perpetually enjoying the company of surfer girls, and if things didn’t work out there was always a Rhonda ready to help or a Barbara Ann to supply romance, suggesting something along the lines of the Surf City of Jan and Dean, with its remarkable demographic structure of two girls for every boy.

More recently I overheard another Beatles’ song, ‘Back in the USSR’. It’s a clever piece of work, in which a line in the chorus, ‘Back in the US [pause], back in the US [pause]’ invites the listener to supply an ‘A’, but no, it’s not the USA but the USSR to which a return is being made. And surely the song is a parody of the music of the Beachboys. The sunny tone and use of harmonies, not to mention the lyrics, are a kind of tribute, doubtless an affectionate one, to the Beachboys.

While the Beatles can parody the Beachboys, I can’t imagine the Beachboys being able to return the favour. Big things seem to have the capacity to incorporate lesser ones within their frame of reference, and the same may be true of intellectual systems as well. Imagine a system of such truth and richness that everything that was valid in other systems could be incorporated within it. Indeed, such things would fit better in their new home than they had in those within which they had originated.

In Praise of Beethoven’s Sixth

Shortly after my music-playing apparatus was repaired a concert was broadcast that included the immensely likeable Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony of Beethoven. It contains five sections, that it may be going to far to describe as movements. The first expresses Beethoven’s feelings on arriving in the country; these are light-hearted and serene, the notes of the music often not quite forming themselves into a tune. The following scene at the creek begins with strings producing the sound of flowing water, and later the woodwinds mimic the calls of birds. Then a joyous reunion of country folk takes place, at which a band is playing dance music (oddly enough in 2/4 time), and apparently not making a good job of it; amazingly, Beethoven writes bad music. We have the sense not just of hearing this music but overhearing something taking place independently of the symphony. The proceedings are interrupted by the famous storm, which is often taken to be the fourth movement, although the silence that comes before it could be interpreted as one of Beethoven’s famous dramatic pauses as easily as a gap between movements. Depending on resources and personal inclination, conductors handle the storm in different ways, and that I heard was one of the quieter ones, but the thunder and lightning (in that order!) were as always impressive. The lyrical concluding section expresses appropriately thankful feelings after the storm.

The story line of the symphony, its sustained cheerfulness and the excitement of the storm make this a wonderful piece for children, but it operates at other levels. While I resist the impulse to call the units ‘movements’, they certainly function as a sequence of five, and I’ve been struck at how they can be laid out: the first describes feelings (Gefuehle), the second describes the real world, the third (in a way anticipated by the mimicry towards the end of the second) coincides with that world, the fourth describes it again, and with the fifth we’re back to feelings.  Hence there’s a pattern, abcba, describing a movement from inner to outer and back again. It’s not new for a composer to take interest in the surrounding world (think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons), but the kind of interest taken in one’s own responses to it strikes me as typically Romantic, and I think that a feeling of self-awareness also occurs in being conscious of standing outside a scene, as we do at the joyous reunion, rather than being fully absorbed in it. Such self-consciousness may or may not be a good thing!

In Praise of Aaron Copland

There can be no-one who doesn’t warm to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. From its haunting, gentle beginning, suggestive of Grieg or Wagner, and the lovely passage about six minutes in right through to the Shaker melody that has found popularity elsewhere as the Lord of the Dance and segues into the tranquil beauty of the final bars, there is continual enjoyment. I relish the wonderful alternations between strings, woodwinds and brass, and for that matter the repeated moves from quiet to noisiness and back again, and what sound like happy bird calls. There’s a joyous, life-affirming quality to it. In fact, it’s almost disquietingly easy to like.

Is there a problem here? Much classical music is difficult and grows on you, whereas Copland is immediately accessible. And so I have wondered whether his work counts as serious music. (Perhaps the same question could be asked of his fellow Americans Gershwin and Bernstein.) But behind the attractiveness there is a depth to Copland. Recently I heard Glazunov’s Seventh (Pastoral) Symphony, a work of similar length composed at about the same time that is utterly pleasant, but I doubt whether repeated listening would yield anything you hadn’t heard the first time, in fact it struggles to hold the listener’s attention at the first hearing, whereas Copland draws me back. One particular consideration leads me to think that his composition is deeper than it may first seem to be. Most listeners have assumed the Appalachian Spring of the title is a season, but the phrase comes from a poem by Hart Crane that refers to a source of water, and the music was composed to accompany a ballet celebrating a wedding. This is certainly a work capable of more than one reading!

In praise of Handel

I’d been looking forward to listening to a broadcast of a performance of Handel’s Messiah, but the program was pulled, and instead something I didn’t know existed, a reorchestration of the oratorio produced by Johan Hiller in 1786, was played. It was no more successful than reworkings of earlier music usually are, turning it into something softer and more lush…of course such a process can sometimes add value, as in the case of a swinging version of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto recorded in 1940 in which Benny Hill was the soloist, and could conceivably be the case with a version of Messiah Mozart himself is said to have produced, but I’m afraid what Andre Rieu does is more typical. Never mind. Hiller’s version can be seen as another sign of the extraordinary popularity of Messiah. It may be the oldest piece of music with an unbroken record of frequent performance until the present day (would it be pipped by the same composer’s stirring Zadok the Priest, performed at coronations?); it may have had the largest cumulative audience of any serious music; and, judging by the size of some groups singing the chorus, it may have had the largest number of performers! Why has it done so well?

In his own day Handel was famous for his operas, but these have not lasted as well as some of his other compositions. Two pieces, one from the beginning and the other from the end of his years in England, are more widely  heard, and they have a lot in common. The Music for the Royal Fireworks and the Water Music are both big production items, composed to be performed outdoors before large crowds. The former is solemn, fast-paced and brassy, with an amazing jauntiness. The Water Music is quieter and perhaps deeper in emotion, but again resolutely upbeat. And each is laid out in a sequence of short passages; if for some reason one’s attention is lost, a new beginning is never far away. All of this is also true of Messiah.

But of everything Handel wrote, the easiest to like must be the movement from a suite now known as the Harmonious Blacksmith, clunky as only a harpsicord can be and thoroughly good humored. Neither here nor in Messiah does Handel encourage introspection. It’s the sense of easeful cheerfulness that one warms to; no-one feels uncomfortable in following the example of George II and standing at the Hallelujah Chorus. I think of Handel as John Bull sauntering down the street with his hands in his pockets, exuding joviality. The music produced by such a character is for every man, easy to like.