Archive for britten

Is Opera Dead?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Opera is a particularly tricky genre to exploit nowadays when so many of its constituent parts have themselves mutated markedly over the past fifty years, yet the usual home for performances is a building whose traditions are better suited to an outmoded form of dramatic presentation. Opera, music drama, music theatre, or whatever, nearly always seems to be lagging behind present-day possibilities, not least because it’s usually stuck in these houses which belong to a different era.

The only opera I’ve heard close to its inception when I knew it was a masterpiece (and I speak as someone who grew up in the 1970s) was John Adams’ Nixon in China.

I always think that when people come out of performances scratching their heads, and saying, don’t know, what do you think, that bit with the flutes was nice, the performance has failed. It’s got to grab you, even if you don’t understand it all at a first hearing.

How I would love to have been present at those Britten or Shostakovich premieres.

What is opera, if not a flawed art form?

Johannes Brahms: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Personally, I’m passionate about Brahms; but I’m very aware that some people, including some quite eminent composers, feel or have felt the opposite.

There are some composers whose work is more likely than that of others to invite extreme reactions, although I would not immediately have singled out Brahms as a particularly notable example, for all that there are some for whom he could do no wrong and others who detest much of his work – in other words, I’m less than convinced that these extreme positions vis-à-vis Brahms are especially common. Britten’s loathing of Brahms, whilst well known, was by no means universal; he had, for example, a lot of time for the D minor piano concerto.

Delius strikes me as one example of a composer whose work tends to elicit mostly very positive or very negative responses; Havergal Brian is another. Why it is that certain composers’ works more often than not tend to attract these extreme reactions is quite another matter.

It’s interesting that most people associate Brahms with his chamber and orchestral works, when around three-quarters of his output includes voices. Many, many songs (countless treasures in there), numerous works for multiple solo voices and instruments, and much for choir (Brahms conducted several choirs through the course of his career) and choir and orchestra.

I tend to believe that the problem with a lot of Brahms performance lies not so much with the use of vibrato, larger orchestras, modern pianos, or whatever (all of which Brahms experienced on occasion), but the approaches to phrasing and articulation – already problematic in editions appearing very soon after his death (for example those of the piano music by Sauer) which tend to smooth out the many very subtle details in this respect, and replace his sometimes fragmentary and delicate approach to the balance between small-scale units and longer lines with a rather homogeneous approach stressing maximum continuity. And the rests are very important (and Brahms took immense care over them when preparing editions) – many pedal markings in others’ ediions of the piano music make little sense in this respect, nor do some conductors’ attempts to artificially make contrasting fragments cohere into a continuous whole, negating some of the inner tensions.

The influence of Mahler on Lennon & McCartney

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Seen in a recent review of a Mahler complete edition on EMI:

Mahler’s influences on subsequent generations have been extensive and wide – Zemlinsky, Schönberg, Berg and Webern in Austria, Shostakovich in Russia, Britten in Britain and Copland in America are just a few to acknowledge their debt. He also spread beyond the limits of classical music with Paul McCartney writing, “I have always adored Mahler, and Mahler was a major influence on the music of the Beatles. John and me used to sit and do the Kindertotenlieder and Wunderhorn for hours, we’d take turns singing and playing the piano. We thought Mahler was great.”

Mahler’s songs often have a folk-like simplicity which is actually very moving with hints of nostalgia, lost love, absence and grief. Some of the Beatles’ songs, especially the slow numbers, explore these emotional effects musically. They are less inclined to use folk song: rather paraphrases of the popular ballads of the interwar years, although sometimes a very Russian-sounding folk song will pop up. Their songs wander in and out of keys and often have more than three chords. They were on a higher level than most of their contemporaries, except the Beach Boys.

What we can never be sure of is the level of influence that Sir George Martin had in his arrangements and the musicians that he recommended they studied. After all, he was working with them one week and Barbirolli or Boult the next.

There is also the infamous article that William Mann wrote pointing out similarities between the pandiatonic discords that end Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and begin A Hard Day’s Night. Perhaps this encouraged the two to play (or attempt to play) Mahler’s songs.

Lennon never mentioned this, but then he didn’t mention Martin’s attempts to get him to listen to Ravel. (I forget the exact words, but Lennon is reported to have said something along the lines of “Nice tunes, but they go on too long”).

My Early Life

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

This is the first review of my music to appear in print. It was written by Ernest Bradbury (what an excellent name for a music critic) of the Yorkshire Evening Post and published on 5 March 1982.

The String Quartet No. 1 was the first of my compositions to receive a public performance, i.e. before an audience of paying punters.

I first heard the piece played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet (with the original personnel of the late Christopher Rowland, Jonathan Sparey, Alan George and Ioan Davies) in a composers’ workshop at York University in 1982. My favourite participant in these composers’ workshops was Roland Perrin, who always asked the same question:

“How did you derive your pitch material?”

The title of the piece certainly suggested that there would be more quartets to follow, but after 28 years I still haven’t composed String Quartet No. 2. How idle is that?

Leeds University Clothworkers’ Hall; Leodian Quartet

Last night’s concert was arranged around the winning entry in the string quartet competition held in connection with the present Leeds 20th Century Music Festival. This was Robin Gosnall’s String Quartet No. 1, a lightly atmospheric, skilfully written piece of some immediate appeal.

Gosnall is a student at York University, and it is no bad thing when a young composer acknowledges the influence of an older master: in this instance, Alban Berg.

It might be remembered that Benjamin Britten wanted, in his student days, to use his RCM scholarship to study with Berg in Vienna. The authorities of the day turned down so outrageous a suggestion.

Nowadays it seems, and happily, a young creator of music may be trusted to choose his own priorities; and Gosnall’s note on his first essay in this medium drew attention to Berg’s music in general, and in this particular work the soundworld of the Op. 3 quartet and the “Lyric Suite”.

It has, nonetheless, expression of its own. Gosnall is no mere imitator. Maybe he won the competition because of this overt conservatism, which may be regarded at this stage as merely the starting point of much more originality.

Not as short-breathed as works by Webern, it is even so a compressed, easily assimilable work, neatly working out its basic ideas in the space of two thematically linked movements – each with a slow, then fast, section – lasting little more than ten minutes.

The principal motif seems on a first hearing to come from the isolated cello at the beginning, characterized by a semitone as well as by wider intervals.

In the second movement there are impressive ideas against the chords which give the atmosphere to the piece, with interesting dropping phrases which might give some idea of melody even to opponents of “formalism”.

However that may be, the work has charm, and suggests that Gosnall is on the right path. More may well be expected of him, and the Leodians’ playing seemed to confirm this faith.

I really should compose another one.

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Vibrato: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

I must say, having listened recently to Benjamin Britten’s recording of The Dream of Gerontius that like cholesterol there is good and bad vibrato. Yvonne Minton (what a beautiful voice) represents the good creative use of vibrato whereas Peter Pears represents the bad, using it permanently. Actually performances of Elgar’s music seem to suffer from excessive vibrato generally. Did he ask for it in scores? But of course Roger Norrington went too far the other way and played Elgar with no vibrato at all … with horrendous results.

I know that Pears’ voice is like Marmite – you love it or you hate it. But comparing his performance with (for instance) a more recent Gerontius release (from CBSO/Oramo), I much prefer the passion of Pears to Lavender who (with a rather all-purpose, non-expressive vibrato) sounds rather like a rather annoyed accountant, rather than a human being about to meet his maker.

Bad vibrato is the all-time killer for me as far as musical enjoyment is concerned (it keeps me away from a lot of opera).

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Britten’s Gloriana

Posted in Music with tags , , on September 7, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


What’s the present opinion of this opera? I know there was a lot of controversy about it at the time it was first put on (1953).

I think it had revivals in the ’60s (Sadler’s Wells), and more recently, and I think the general opinion now is that it was originally misunderstood and underrated by the gala first night audience who weren’t really people to appreciate a new opera.

The irony is that it was originally planned to have a ballet on the gala night and it was Britten’s supporters who campaigned to have Gloriana then instead of later.

I still find Gloriana uneven, indeed I think it’s the first work in what I regard as an uneven 20 years in Britten’s output until Death in Venice. But it has its moments: I think the end is tremendously moving, and the two lute songs in act one introduced me to the unique world of the Elizabethan lute song, so I’m very grateful for that.

I had heard so much of the negative response to Gloriana in 1953, so when I finally saw it for myself I was surprised by how good it was. It was either ahead of its time, or simply unsuitable in the eyes of most for what was supposed to be a celebratory occasion. I wonder what those who chose Britten as the composer for this occasion thought he would come up with? He wasn’t likely to write Merrie England. It was never going to be simple patriotism and a rosy view of a golden age.

I suspect one reason why it is still comparatively neglected is that it is, I imagine, expensive to stage. It has to have a grand production with grand Elizabethan costumes (modernising it would be ludicrous, though that doesn’t necessarily stop directors), it has to have dancers. The title role is wonderful for a good dramatic singer. I think it deserves more productions.

I think that during Benjamin Britten’s lifetime it was rare to find a moderate, impartial view of his music. On the one hand there was the Mitchell-Keller brigade who seemed to think every note he wrote was a masterpiece, on the other, equally wrong, were those who wrote him off as all clever tricks. I always felt he was a substantial original composer who had written some great stuff, but lacked the depth and vision of Tippett, for instance.

Up to Billy Budd I think his music is immaculate, brilliant, and I can hear all those works repeatedly with endless delight, my favourites being the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, Peter Grimes, the Spring Symphony, Abraham and Isaac and Billy Budd itself.

From Gloriana to Owen Wingrave I feel there are lapses where he’s scratching for ideas to get the piece finished. The Sanctus in the War Requiem for instance, and its increasing dependence on Verdi as it progresses. The last two movements of the Cello Symphony are a disappointment after the first two, and I think one church parable was enough. And for me he’s out of his depth in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as much as Strauss would have been writing an opera on Maurice.

I think he went through a difficult time realising he wasn’t a wunderkind any more while younger composers were turning to serialism. Then suddenly he seems to say ‘to hell with this, I’m just going to be myself’, and writes Death in Venice and from then on he was back on the rails (although sadly not for long).


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


Some examples of attractive and enjoyable works that might be more popular if they had less forbidding titles:

Edmund Rubbra: Improvisations on Virginal Pieces by Giles Farnaby
Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber

(Actually I suspect that Hindemith was being mischievous and perhaps even humorous with his Symphonic Metamorphoses title.) Hindemith was a bit of a wag – think of his 1925 string quartet piece “Overture to the Flying Dutchman, as played by sight by a mediocre spa orchestra at 7 a.m. in front of the drinking fountain”.

The two examples above are characterized by (a) their length and (b) the inclusion of musical terms that may be unfamiliar to some people – arguably to many. This is a combination that might discourage somebody thinking of dipping a toe in the wonderful pool of classical music. I wonder whether somebody who gets to hear of Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and considers giving it a try might feel less adventurous if confronted with a work called “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell”.

How about Holst’s Fugal Concerto and Fugal Overture? Maybe Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (though this is popular enough despite the possibility that the first adjective could be misconstrued as referring to a quality of the work), or all those works of his (and others) that are entitled “Klavierstück” followed by a number? What about “Die Kunst der Fuge”? Carl Ruggles once said “If you ask me , Brahms was just a big cissie. Look at some of his titles : Capriccio, Intermezzo. Now, what the hell does that mean?”

This reminds me of the work by Mendelssohn called “Spring Song” – a real classic, of course, charming in its way and immensely popular. It seems that he wrote this in London during one of his visits to these shores, and originally named it after the place where he was staying – “Camberwell Green”. How would it have fared if he had not changed his mind?

Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2009 by Robin Gosnall


In Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, the words “silly fellow” are set to a transposition of the famous DSCH motif that Shostakovich used extensively.

Was this deliberately making fun of Shostakovich? I am not sure that Shostakovich had made much use of DSCH prior to 1943, so it may be coincidence, but it seems so pointed from the perspective of 2009. Did, then, Benjamin Britten discover and initiate the use of the DSCH motto in 1943?

How was Rejoice in the Lamb received at the time? I would imagine that the church choir in Northampton would have been depleted of younger men as a result of the war, and that the idiom of the piece may have been difficult to grasp.

I think it’s a most beautiful, haunting piece, spine-tingling. The words are a large part of this, and I’ve been thrilled by them ever since I first sang them. I have come across people who are bewildered by them, though – the same people, I’m sure, are puzzled by the Rimbaud poems Britten used in Les Illuminations. Poetry doesn’t have to have an exact meaning that one can analyse, any more than music does.

In 1944 Peter Pears wrote to Britten about Rejoice in the Lamb, “That is still your best yet, you know.” An interesting comment, considering that when the letter was written Pears had already given the premieres of the Michelangelo Sonnets and the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

Britten himself seems to have been very pleased with the first performance in Northampton, and refers in a letter to Walter Hussey (who commissioned the piece) to the “very efficient and charming choir and soloists”, who apparently learnt the piece “very thoroughly” at short notice. He also says of the organist that he had “seldom heard such rhythmic playing from an organist”. There was also a very complimentary review in The Times, saying that “the spirit of the curious, vivid poem has been caught”, and calling it “a work not to be placed in any of the usual categories, but certainly beautiful”.

I don’t think it’s known what the choir thought about it.

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