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In Praise of Arvo Part (ii)

Among the sacred works of the contemporary composer Arvo Part, the mighty Passio (1982), which sets to music the Vulgate text of St John’s narrative of Christ’s Passion, is the best known. It begins with a wall of sound in which the Chorus announces the topic of the work, and proceeds with other voices taking the parts of the Evangelist, Jesus (a dignified bass), and Pilate (a poignant, frail tenor). The interplay between the voices is moving, with the typically Partian spareness being enlivened by the noisy and raucous clamorings of the Chorus, often accompanied by a deep organ. Jesus’ final words, ‘Consumatum est’, are sung with successively lower notes, and the final words of the Chorus recall the opening, although enlivened with a dash of hope. Listeners to recordings may succumb to languors, and it is certainly one of those works better heard live. I shall never forget one electrifying performance.

More recent compositions show Part’s style developing in a more jaunty, occasionally buoyant direction. Singers tell me that the short Bogoroditse Djevo (1990) is hard to perform, and it is certainly needs to be taken at a run, but it has an exhilarating feel (this is one of his few works for the liturgy of the Orthodox Church, to which he is a convert.) Dopo la vittoria (1996/98) is a thoroughly joyous piece setting to music a text made up of quotation within quotation; the central, innermost sections are occasions for beautiful climaxes in the singing. A piece in English, Which was the son of…(2000) sets to music the genealogy of Christ that occurs on St Luke’s Gospel, not the most promising material for music, but it works, and here too, as in Dopo la vittoria, key sections trigger rich climaxes. While Part has remained true to his initial impulses, much of his recent work is far more tuneful and has elements of joy. One hopes that this has been true of his personal life.

In Praise of Arvo Part (i)

Born in Estonia in 1935, Part is one of those composers who took a while to find his voice. Of his early pieces, the most enjoyable is Solfeggio (1964), in which unaccompanied voices overlay each other. Doubtless being in the USSR imposed constraints on him, as it did on other composers, although while living in an oppressive environment most have consequences for creative work it is not easy to see just what they are. Part’s big breakthrough came when he adopted the style of tintinnabulation, based on triads, that can suggest bells. A piece for piano, Fur Alina (1976; is the title meant to suggest Fur Elise?) usually takes about two minutes in performance. It is extraordinarily pared back, the score containing no time signature, there being no variation in volume, and the two hands always playing notes simultaneously. Yet it holds one’s total attention There are a number of performances on YouTube, including a master class with a very interesting commentary given by the composer himself. Less characteristic of his work is another piece of this period, the lush Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, in which a real bell tolls; it is a wonderful act of homage to the composer who reinvigorated English music.

More ambitious is Fratres, the first version of which was published in 1977, although there have been many reworkings. The CD on which I’ve been listening to it (Naxos) has two of these, and while that for strings and percussion isn’t terribly effective the one for cello and piano is superb; the low, rumbling notes of the piano seem to be trying to soothe the nervous edginess of the cello, and it occurs to me that the mysterious title of the work may allude to brotherly relations between the instruments executing the two lines of music.

All these are among Part’s early pieces, written while he was still living in the Soviet Union. Later he went on to compose works on a grander scale for which he is better known. But his breathtaking simplicity and integrity have always been there. The feeling he gives of reaching towards the absolute moves me as that of no other living composer does.

Henryk Gorecki, John Tavener and Arvo Part

Some years ago three composers who seemed to be doing similar things came to prominence at about the same time. It is now becoming easier to separate them.

Henryk Gorecki, a Pole, died recently, and his fame will largely rest on one piece, his Symphony no. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) for orchestra and soprano. It’s a very moving composition with an emotional intensity that makes it compelling at first hearing, but I’m not sure that repeated listenings yield much that is new. Moreover, Gorecki’s fame will largely rest on this one work, and I suspect he will turn out to have been what they call in another part of the musical world a one hit wonder.

John Tavener (not to be confused with his Renaissance predecessor John Taverner) is still very active, and has in common with Gorecki a minimalist approach; somewhere in the background you can almost hear medieval chant. His output contains many memorable pieces, from the early The Lamb and The Protecting Veil to his recent work influenced by Islamic and Hindu traditions. He is clearly a significant composer, although it may be that his openness to various traditions will prevent his voice ultimately being a particularly distinctive one.

The third member of the trio is an Estonian, Arvo Part. I’ve been reading an interview with the conductor Richard Tognetti, a man of wide tastes who, on being asked about his dislikes, replied: ‘It used to be Arvo Part. I used really to dislike him. I’d rather play Pink Floyd…And now I like Part more, but I far prefer listening to him. He’s a boring composer to play and there’s no room for interpretation.’  This strikes me as a very reasonable comment; Part, perhaps more than the other two, writes with a kind of sparseness that requires conductors to stand back; it’s impossible to imagine a flamboyant extrovert like Leonard Bernstein conducting Part. Yet I believe that Part has more to offer than Gorecki and Tavener…

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.