Archive for May, 2009

Leoš Janáček: Under the Influence

Posted in Music with tags , on May 19, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


In a recent BBC Music Magazine Janáček was quoted, when asked which composers had influenced him, as responding: “None.” Well, I hear a lot of Dvořák in Janáček.

The information we have: amongst other operas that we know from letters and other documents that he admired, are Madama Butterfly, and Charpentier’s Louise, as well as some Czech works, and also rather rarer pieces like Vladimir Rebikoff’s opera The Christmas Tree. The problem with Janáček being quoted on things is that he clearly enjoyed being a little mischievous with journalists. There’s a lot more about this in Vol. 1 of John Tyrrell’s superlative Janáček biography.

Composers, and artists generally, are often prickly when asked who has influenced them, as if they feel it as a slight on their originality. Thankfully, some (Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams) cheerfully embrace their influences and admit them.

In Janáček’s case, whilst we do have some idea of works he admired, influence is much harder to hear in the mature works.

There are some parallels with his contemporaries in terms of composing techniques (two obvious examples: ostinato ideas – very much something Sibelius thrived on too, but used in a different way; absorbing traits from folk music – as did Bartók and Vaughan Williams, but again the results are quite different).

And despite his fondness for Dvořák (both musically and personally), and a wide knowledge of other music, with Janáček the end result is music of glorious originality.

I may as well mention Janáček’s fascination with the acoustical properties of chords. He read Helmholtz and others carefully, and evolved ideas about resonance that really can be heard in his music.


Authenticity: More Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I’ve always thought of “period” (or “original” or “authentic” instruments as we used to say) as being either the instrument the music would have been played on originally, or modern copies.

Many string instruments are in fact 18th century, but have had longer fingerboards and steel stings fitted, so presumably they could be (and in many cases have been) restored.

The idea as I understand it was to try to perform the music as it would have sounded, and as such I regard that as an interesting historical exercise, but not a guarantee of a better performance; better performances, I think, are given only by better performers.

Amongst the problems in “reconstructing” the original sound is timbre, e.g. compare the London Symphony Orchestra on recordings in the late 20s and late 60s; if clarinet tone changed that much in one orchestra in 40 years, how much might it have changed across a continent in 200 years? Another problem is what would the composer want if he knew his music was being played 200 years later? Would he insist we used hand-horns and pre-Boehm woodwind keys, or would he welcome the changes? Many composers did indeed welcome developments in instrument construction and design, e.g. Schubert and the piano in the 1820s.

So I’m far from convinced that “period” performance is always, or automatically, better. It can be, but it will depend on who’s playing.

Just to clarify, I think music is best heard on those instruments, and played and conducted by those performers, which bring out the best in the music. I think very often there was more in the music than could be conveyed by the instruments of the day.

This is why I think the late Beethoven piano sonatas need a modern concert grand, and Berlioz’ orchestral music sounds lame played on the instruments of his day; because in both cases the music was ahead of its time, in particular Beethoven’s compositions for the piano driving more robust designs for the technology of the instrument.

In terms of our own technology and the recorded legacy, the early performances of a work are rarely its best. I often think the early recordings of Elgar’s chamber music and Vaughan Williams’ symphonies, for instance, lack insight later musicians could discern, from familiarity. I exclude the composers’ own performances as presumably they had that knowledge which it took others a decade or so to learn.

Igor Fest

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , on May 16, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Well, the CBSO’s Igor Fest is over. There are no all-Stravinsky concerts on BBC Radio 3 now to look forward to, not even at this year’s Proms. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for the next Stravinsky festival for this to happen. I notice Michael Tilson Thomas is doing an all-Stravinsky concert in London in June, should be good.

Charles Rosen considers that many of Stravinsky’s neo-classical works are connoisseur’s music and perhaps he is right. And if that is true, what about his output after The Rake’s Progress?

I got hooked on Stravinsky in my teens beginning with the Symphony in C (not L’Oiseau de Feu, which I did not at that time enjoy). I still love a great deal of his music. But how many pianists know the Concerto or the Capriccio – such rewarding pieces? How often is Persephone done? Is it too rarefied for most tastes? These are all pieces which deserve to be much better known.

When I was at university, ahem, 25 years ago, Stravinsky was very much to the fore as (arguably) one of the top five composers of the 20th century. Yet now he has almost fallen off the radar, and I wonder what the cause is for that? Perhaps it has to do with the great stylistic differences between his early, middle and late works?

Pineapple with Sichuan peppercorn sorbet

Posted in Food with tags , , , , on May 15, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Pineapple is a great after-dinner fruit because it helps to digest your food. This is a kind of sorbet granita which can be made without an ice-cream maker, and Sichuan peppercorns have a lovely tingling quality, which adds a nice twist.

1 large sweet pineapple
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns, lightly crushed

Top and tail the pineapple (I’ve left mine with the skin on here, but peel it if you wish). Cut four slices from the pineapple then peel, chop and blend the rest with the Sichuan peppercorns. Transfer to a plastic or non-reactive container and place in the freezer. Leave in the freezer for 4-6 hours, stirring every so often until frozen. Quarter each pineapple slice and arrange on plates with the sorbet.

Sibelius: Pure Cold Water

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


I find that I can clog my arteries with certain pieces of music, so every now and again I’ll need to listen to something that may not necessarily be a favourite but will re-invigorate my listening ears (and not necessarily a piece I know).

I’ve found that playing some unknown Janáček (angular music with a touch of sugar) or an unknown Bach cantata, can really freshen things up. Or even some Schoenberg, such as the Piano Concerto – like cold mineral water splashing onto a metallic surface.

Since we have a hot summer to look forward to, two pieces I have always found remarkably refreshing for those days when we might feel like jumping head first into the deep freeze are Debussy’s Gigues from the orchestral Images, and the first movement of Honegger’s Fourth Symphony “Deliciae Basiliensis”. There’s something to the orchestration of these two works which, when listened to, is like a delicious cold refreshing drink.

A bit of Webern tends to help one to focus, I find. That’s why I always take Webern’s music with me on winter holidays in the Alps.

Dvořák’s American Quartet comes to mind, too. Also Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony – always very fresh, but I can’t work out why, as it’s not a favourite work for me, by any means.

But the ultimate palate cleanser, for me, is Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony. No padding, no note spinning – just good old Finnish gloom. As the composer himself said of this work:

“Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water.”

Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards 2009

Posted in Books, Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


Congratulations to all the winners:

Audience Development Streetwise Opera: My Secret Heart
Chamber Music Britten Sinfonia Lunchtime Series
Chamber-Scale Composition Harrison Birtwistle: The Tree of Strings
Concert Series and Festivals Ensemble 10/10
Conductor Valery Gergiev
Creative Communication Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise (4th Estate / Harper Perennial)
Education Hackney Music Development Trust: Confucius Says
Ensemble Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Ensemble 10/10
Instrumentalist Janine Jansen
Large-Scale Composition George Benjamin: Into the Little Hill
Opera and Music Theatre English National Opera
Singer Susan Bullock
Young Artist Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Special Award for Services to British Music Richard Hickox (posthumous)

Hats off to Liz Forgan, chair of Arts Council England, who described how her own grandfather had made her listen, aged six, to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

“Throwing children alive into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all,” she said. “Give them Birtwistle, Buxtehude, Ligeti, Ockeghem and Beethoven as soon as possible. Give them the best of contemporary music of all sorts. Above all, don’t apologise.”


Raise children on Wagner, urges Arts Council chair Dame Liz Forgan

Soave sia il vento by Mozart

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on May 12, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

Where does the title Così fan tutte come from?

Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, had earlier used the line “Così fan tutte le belle” in Le Nozze di Figaro (it comes from Don Basilio’s sarcastic remark), although the theme of fiancée swapping dates back to the thirteenth century, with notable earlier versions being those of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline. Elements from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew are also present. Furthermore, it incorporates elements of the myth of Procris as found in Ovid. Mozart himself got his own wife, Constanze, on the rebound from one of her sisters, Aloysia, who may have inspired many of the characters in Mozart’s operas. Mozart and Constanze Weber met in 1777 in Mannheim. When Mozart met the family again in Vienna in 1781, Aloysia showed no interest in Mozart and married Lange, an actor, though it is rumoured that she regretted this decision years later. Mozart lived with the Weber family for a time, though he left due to rumours about their relationship.

Lorenzo da Ponte, born Emanuele Conegliano, was an Italian librettist and poet born in Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto). Conegliano was Jewish by birth. When he, his father, and siblings converted to the Catholic faith, he took the name Lorenzo da Ponte, the name of the bishop of Ceneda who administered the baptism. Still later, he studied to be a teacher and was ordained a Catholic priest. However, unable to conduct himself in a manner befitting either profession, he was banned from both fields, and later exiled from Venice. When he met Mozart in Vienna, they had a discussion in Franziskanerplatz, where da Ponte confided that “così fan tutte le belle”, a sentiment which they then set to music.

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