Archive for mozart

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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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.

Scordatura: Idle Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Scordatura (simply retuning of the strings from their conventional pitches) is not a technique exclusive to modern music; it dates back to the 16th century, when it was employed by French lutenists, then taken up for the violin by many composers, most notable of whom was Biber. After falling out of fashion in the 18th century (though employed for the viola part in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 364 for violin and viola), many 19th century violin treatises mention it (including that of Baillot from 1834), and it was a speciality of Paganini, and after him de Bériot, Vieuxtemps, and others. Also employed in Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony and Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.

The technique is also common in much non-classical music, especially amongst folk fiddlers in various places. It’s questionable how meaningful the term is when alternative tunings can themselves become standard (as apparently an a-e-a-e tuning is in parts of Scotland and North America).

It is also impossible to play Nick Drake’s songs on the guitar because nobody knows how he tuned the instrument for different songs.

The Biber Rosary Sonatas are surely the classic examples where each sonata is tuned differently. On the only occasion when I heard them performed live the violinist (Elizabeth Wallfisch) had three different violins, each of which was immediately tuned for its own next sonata once it had been played, laid down, and then retuned again when its turn came round. It’s actually a bit of a palaver which detracts a bit from the whole performance because so much time is spent tuning the instruments.

Some Italian words that used to begin “dis” now begin with just “s”. So scordatura probably used to be discordatura.

Soave sia il vento by W.A. Mozart

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I make no apologies for posting another version of the most beautiful music ever written.

Emmanuel Chabrier

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Heard part of Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera Briséïs today. Can’t imagine why Chabrier thought he was being “modernist” though – didn’t seem that different to me – lovely music, great harmonies and what a sense of drama. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But, not for the first time, I thought how little suited the French language is to being set to music. No wonder Chabrier had problems with his libretti. Even a truly great aria such as Massenet’s “Pourquoi me reveiller?” suffers – the “du” in “du printemps” is so weak-sounding. It must be awful to sing with your mouth all twisted up.

The only thing we sang in French when I was a treble was Rutter’s “Il est né le divin enfant” at Christmas. Good tune, of course, but again, seemed very odd when we had been used to primarily Latin and English.

Surely the greatest language for opera has to be the musical Italian, with all its open vowels all over the place. Could that be why so many of the best operas are in Italian, i.e. such as Verdi had an advantage before they even started? And of course Mozart used Italian, even though he had a choice.

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Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen by W.A. Mozart & E. Schikaneder

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Protesters disrupt Jerusalem Quartet Wigmore Hall broadcast

Posted in BBC Radio 3, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

BBC Radio 3 pulled the plug on the broadcast of this recital, announcing a “disruption” at the Wigmore Hall. Listeners were startled to hear singing interrupt Mozart’s String Quartet in D major K. 575. I think the broadcast should have continued, but of course it is typical of the craven cowardice of the BBC that it did not.

Within an hour, the incident was reported in the Jewish Chronicle (and nowhere else):

A lunchtime performance by the Jerusalem Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall, being broadcast live on BBC Radio Three, was taken off air partway through the concert on Monday afternoon after protesters disrupted the event. But the musicians played on and completed the Mozart and Ravel concert programme.

The clash came after four or five pro-Palestinian protesters bought tickets for the concert, and, about five to ten minutes into the music, began shouting and heckling the Israeli musicians. They shouted: “The Quartet, who are cultural ambassadors for the state of Israel, are promoting the interests of Israel and all its policies against the Palestinians, to the British public.”

The demonstrators were taken away by Wigmore Hall security officers and a decision was taken by the concert hall management to take the broadcast off-air “in order to deny these people publicity.”

A clearly shaken John Gilhooly, director of the Wigmore Hall, told the JC: “It is such a pity that music has become politicised.”

John Gilhooly should sit down and have a chat with the members of the Jerusalem Quartet about politicising music.

No doubt the protestors are feeling very pleased with themselves (they organised the demonstration through Twitter), but beyond making John Gilhooly sweat and irritating a couple of hundred people who couldn’t care less about the plight of Palestinians, what did they achieve?

Absolutely … nothing.

Related:

7 ways to stop musical “ambassadors” for Israel

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