Archive for June, 2011

Separating composers’ lives from their music

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

This is very difficult, isn’t it? We really want the composers whose work we admire to be admirable on a personal level too, even though we have no right to expect them to be any different from the rest of us. Speaking for myself, I’m afraid their perceived personalities do affect my ability to enter wholeheartedly into their music. I’m not happy about this: even though I reject all that old structuralist stuff about the sanctity of the text, as if music didn’t have a human creator behind it, I find myself quite conflicted over some works that I would otherwise love, because some reported awfulness in the composer gets in the way.

Just as one example, because I have the book to hand here, Michael Kennedy’s Portrait of Elgar refers to him as an “often dislikeable man, a flawed human being but a blazing genius as a composer”.

I think very few great composers are or were “nice” people, however lovely their music. Beethoven was notoriously volatile and moody (well, he was deaf), I’m sure I’d have found Mozart rather tiresomely rude, Wagner was probably tolerable as long as the subject of the conversation was how great his music was, Schoenberg’s difficulties with just about everyone are legendary (some of his replies to American students who wrote to him about his music are dripping with sarcasm), and although Otto Klemperer said Stravinsky was always courteous and polite, that doesn’t seem to have extended to anyone he regarded as his social inferior.

This can be explained by the need of a composer to exclude distractions, I suppose.

Sir Arthur Sullivan was a very easy man to get on with, by all accounts. He made friends easily and would do anything to avoid an argument. Some composers went to extraordinary lengths to avoid distractions (think of Mahler in his hut being driven mad by cowbells, finally demanding that they be removed), Sullivan would compose at his desk, with a large gin, away from the piano, pen in one hand and cigarette in the other, and hold conversations with people who came and went all at the same time.

I’ve always found musicians (great and small) to be very pleasant. The one exception was Sally Beamish. She was having a work premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and was very off-hand when I attempted to talk to her. She also, when she was a mere violinist, ballsed up a piece of mine back in 1985.

As a result I’ve ignored her music as much as possible. Petty, I know.

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Grilled cherry tomato and roast ham penne

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Half Hour Meals

400g wholewheat penne
360g cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tbsp olive oil
ground black pepper
110g honey-cured roast ham, torn into strips
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves

Boil the pasta in a large pan of water for around 10-12 minutes until al dente.

Meanwhile, preheat the grill to high. Put the tomatoes cut side up into a shallow roasting tin. Drizzle with oil and season. Grill for 7-10 minutes until they start to shrivel.

Drain the pasta and return to the pan. Fold in the tomatoes and ham. Sprinkle with the thyme leaves and serve.

Sir Colin Davis conducts Elgar’s “Nimrod”

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Variation IX from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations (dedicated “To my friends pictured within”) is entitled “Nimrod” and is a tribute to A.J. Jaeger of Novello, Elgar’s publisher.

Michael Kennedy sums up the piece in his excellent book Portrait of Elgar:

Elgar admits that “something ardent and mercurial, in addition to the slow movement, would have been needed to portray the character and temperament of A.J. Jaeger.” Then follow these important words: “The variation is the record of a long summer evening talk, when my friend discoursed eloquently on the slow movements of Beethoven, and said that no one could approach Beethoven at his best in this field, a view with which I cordially concurred. It will be noticed that the opening bars are made to suggest the slow movement of the eighth sonata (Pathétique).”

Elgar had written to Jaeger and said he was “sick of music” and was “going to give it up”. Jaeger wrote a “screed” in reply, “all about my ingratitude for my great gifts,” and suggested he should visit Elgar for a talk. They went on a long walk and “he preached me a regular sermon, pointing out that Beethoven, faced with his worries, had written still more beautiful music – and that is what you must do”.

[Nimrod] has become a traditional requiem for commemorating the dead; to this use of it there has been some objection, but, in appropriate cases, what could be better than this intimate record of a real friendship?

1911 No. 3: Gustav Mahler

Posted in 1911, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Mahler’s second season with the New York Philharmonic opened on 1 November 1910. He conducted his own Symphony No. 4 in New York on 17 and 20 January 1911. In February he became seriously ill with a severe, ultimately fatal, streptococcal blood infection. Today penicillin would have saved his life. He returned to Paris in April (where Chantemesse, a celebrated bacteriologist, told Alma Mahler “I have never seen streptococci in such a marvellous state of development – it’s like seaweed!”) and died in a Vienna nursing home on 18 May 1911.

Alma describes his last days in her book Gustav Mahler: Erinnerungen und Briefe:

After a time he lay completely still. His mind was becoming confused. [Mahler’s sister] Justine paid him another visit and at the sight of her his eyes dilated unnaturally:

“Who is this woman?” he stammered. She fled.

[Dr. Arnold] Berliner [who had taught Mahler English in his Hamburg days] arrived from Berlin, true to their old friendship, and Mahler recognized him and grasped his hand. “My dear friend,” he said, and then turned to the wall, perhaps to hide his emotion.

During his last days he cried out: “My Almschi,” hundreds of times, in a voice, a tone I had never heard before and have never heard since. “My Almschi!” As I write it down now, I cannot keep back my tears.

When Gucki [Anna, the couple’s surviving daughter, known as Guckerl] came to his bedside he put his arms round her. “Be my good girl.”

Did he know? Or not? It was impossible to tell. He lay there groaning. A large swelling came up on his knee, then on his leg. Radium was applied and the swelling immediately went down. On the evening after, he was washed and his bed made. Two attendants lifted his naked emaciated body. It was a taking down from the cross. This was the thought that came to all of us.

He had difficulty in breathing and was given oxygen. Then uraemia – and the end. [Professor Dr Franz von] Chvostek [the celebrated Viennese doctor] was summoned. Mahler lay with dazed eyes; one finger was conducting on the quilt. There was a smile on his lips and twice he said: “Mozart!” His eyes were very big. I begged Chvostek to give him a large dose of morphia so that he might feel nothing more. He replied in a loud voice. I seized his hands: “Talk softly, he might hear you.” “He hears nothing now.”

How terrible the callousness of doctors is at such moments. And how did he know that he could not hear? Perhaps he was only incapable of movement?

The death-agony began. I was sent into the next room. The death-rattle lasted several hours.

The ghastly sound ceased suddenly at midnight on the 18th of May during a tremendous thunder-storm. With that last breath his beloved and beautiful soul had fled, and the silence was more deathly than all else.

I was not allowed in the death-chamber. I was removed that night from my room next to his. The doctors insisted. But I felt it a humiliation not to be allowed to stay near him. I could not understand it. Was I alone? Had I to live without him? It was as if I had been flung out of a train in a foreign land. I had no place on earth.

I can never forget his dying hours and the greatness of his face as death drew nearer. His battle for the eternal values, his elevation above trivial things and his unflinching devotion to truth are an example of the saintly life.

Toad in the hole with apple and rosemary

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 red skinned apples, washed and cored
8 pork and leek sausages
a few springs of fresh rosemary
100g plain flour
pinch of salt
2 large eggs
150ml half-fat milk
150ml water

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the oil in a large roasting tin and place in the oven to heat up.

Cut each apple into about 8 wedges.

Remove the hot roasting tin from the oven and add the sausages, apple wedges and rosemary and roast for 10 mins or until beginning to brown.
Whilst the sausages cook, place the flour in a bowl with the salt. Make a well in the centre and break in the eggs. Gradually whisk in the milk and water until the mixture is smooth. Set aside.

Remove the roasting tin from the oven and shake well, pour over the batter then return to the oven and bake for 30-35 mins or until golden and risen. Serve with vegetables and gravy.

Bacon toad in the hole

Posted in Food with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

2 large eggs
125g plain flour
250ml semi-skimmed milk
good pinch of sea salt
2 tbsp sunflower oil
8 thick, good quality pork sausages
8 rashers rindless smoked back bacon
1 medium onion, finely sliced
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
220g cherry tomatoes
300g green beans, trimmed

Preheat the oven to 220°C. To make the batter, put the eggs, flour, milk and salt into a food processor and blitz until smooth. Set aside.

Heat 1 tsp of oil in a large pan and cook the sausages for 5 minutes over a medium-high heat until browned all over, but not cooked through. Transfer to a plate and let cool. Wipe out the cooled pan with kitchen paper.

On a board, use the back of a knife to stretch out the bacon rashers and then wrap one around each sausage. Put the sausages into an ovenproof dish, drizzle over 2 tsp of oil and bake for 5 minutes. Remove the dish from oven and pour the batter around the sausages. Bake for a further 25-30 minutes, until the batter is well risen and golden.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tbsp of oil in the pan and cook the tomatoes until soft. Place in a jug and blitz using a stick blender. Gently fry the onion and garlic until softened and lightly browned. Pour the blitzed tomatoes into the pan with the onion and garlic, stirring well.

Ten minutes before the end of the toad in the hole cooking time, bring a pan of water to the boil, add the beans and cook for 3-4 minutes or until tender. Drain, and tip into the pan with the tomato sauce. Season and let simmer for a few seconds, stirring.

Cut the toad in the hole into wedges and serve with the green beans in tomato sauce.

Brown Bread: Miriam Karlin

Posted in Books, Culture, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

“The sequinned grande dame of British theatre, a Jewish legend and Equity terrorist.” Anthony Sher

“I can’t imagine being anything but left-wing. I was brought up in a home where justice was the most important quality. I’m part of a race that has survived 2,000 years of persecution. I think, if I’d had any ambition at all, I would like to have been the first female British Prime Minister. I would have been a rather lovely English Golda Meir, a benevolent dictator. I am, shall I say, a Utopian socialist. I have an idealistic dream of a wondrous socialist world where there will be a real brotherhood of man. I know it will never happen, but it doesn’t hurt to have such belief, and it keeps me going.” Miriam Karlin

Miriam Karlin, who has died of cancer aged 85, was a pillar of the British acting establishment who was also a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad. During sixty workaholic years, she acted in every area of the performing arts except ballet and the circus, and is fondly remembered as the truculent, whistle-blowing shop steward Paddy (complete with her catchphrase “Everybody out!”) in the classic TV sitcom The Rag Trade. Parallel to her life as a performer, she was a dedicated political activist, spurred on by her lifelong socialist beliefs and an unerring sense of justice, promoting broadly leftwing causes as a member of the council of the actors’ union Equity, and as a campaigner for the Anti-Nazi League, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Soviet Jewry.

She had been unwell for a number of years, suffering from peripheral neuropathy for a decade.

Here is the last page of her 2007 autobiography Some Sort of a Life, based on conversations with writer and director Jan Sargent:

I don’t think I’ll last much longer. I have to say that the contemplation of my own death only frightens me if I think it’s going to be painful and if I can’t control how I go. The idea of not being here only frightens me in terms of my vanity: I hope that I die looking good with my teeth in and that people won’t say awful things about me. I hope that the obituaries will be nice. Perhaps what I am writing now is my own; that’s what it feels like, some sort of a life story.

I don’t want another 20 years in pain; I can’t contemplate very much more of it. I want to say that’s enough, thank you, been there, done that, got all the T-shirts, let’s now finish it in a dignified fashion. I don’t want to die throwing up everywhere; I would just like to die nice and quietly. If only I hadn’t given that damn “Do It Yourself” book to somebody who never gave it back …

I love conversations and talking on the phone, but it’s probably because I have always lived alone. I’d miss gossip, not being here. I’d miss going to wonderful concerts listening to beautiful music. I don’t believe any longer in heaven; I don’t think I am going to hear beautiful harps in a mystical place. I think this is all there is. I’d miss music and my friends. I’ve got some wonderful friends that I’ve had for a very long time, and of course I’d miss my brother, my sister-in-law and my niece Vivien. I can’t really say “I’d miss” because I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t know how to; but if one could, those are the things I’d miss.

R.I.P. Miriam Karlin (Miriam Samuels) 1925-2011

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