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Posted in Blog Stats, Culture, Food, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

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Dear Mr. Stravinsky

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

In May 1953 Boston University proposed to commission Igor Stravinsky, by then living in Hollywood, to write an opera with Dylan Thomas, who was staying in New York, and had a few months to live. They met in Boston, and Stravinsky recalled the occasion in Robert Craft’s book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

His face and skin had the colour and swelling of too much drinking. He was a shorter man than I expected, not more than five feet five or six, with a large protuberant behind and belly. His nose was a red bulb and his eyes were glazed. He drank a glass of whisky with me which made him more at ease, though he kept worrying about his wife, saying he had to hurry home to Wales ‘or it would be too late’. I don’t know how much he knew about music, but he talked about the operas he knew and liked, and about what he wanted to do. ‘His’ opera was to be about the rediscovery of our planet following an atomic misadventure. There would be a re-creation of language, only the new one would have no abstractions; there would be only people, objects, and words. He promised to avoid poetic indulgences: ‘No conceits, I’ll knock them all on the head.’ He agreed to come to me in Hollywood as soon as he could. Returning there I had a room built for him, an extension from our dining room, as we have no guest room. I received two letters from him. I wrote him October 25th in New York and asked him for word of his arrival plans in Hollywood. I expected a telegram from him announcing the hour of his aeroplane. On November 9th the telegram came. It said he was dead. All I could do was cry.

Here’s the letter Thomas sent Stravinsky after that meeting:

The Boat House, Laugharne
Carmarthenshire, Wales
16th June 1953

Dear Mr. Stravinsky,

I was so very glad to meet you for a little time, in Boston; and you and Mrs. Stravinsky couldn’t have been kinder to me. I hope you get well very soon.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the opera and have a number of ideas – good, bad, and chaotic. As soon as I can get something down on paper, I should, if I may, love to send it to you. I broke my arm just before leaving New York the week before last, and can’t write properly yet. It was only a little break, they tell me, but it cracked like a gun.

I should very much like – if you think you would still like me to work with you; and I’d be enormously honoured and excited to do that – to come to California in late September or early October. Would that be convenient? I hope so. And by that time, I hope too, to have some clearer ideas about a libretto.

Thank you again. And please give my regards to your wife and to Mr. Craft.

Yours sincerely

Dylan Thomas

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.

Music: Melting Architecture?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I’ve noticed more than once that some people perceive two distinct kinds of music, which one might call “emotional” and “intellectual”. For instance, they might say that Fauré’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 are “emotional” and Stravinsky’s Symphony in C and Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge are “intellectual”. They might use different words but they still see two mutually exclusive camps.

I think this is not a valid distinction. All too often it tends to be “nice music I like” that’s in the former category and “shit music I don’t like” in the second. Some people are even disappointed to find that music has structure; they want it to be a profuse stream of unpremeditated melody. They’d be surprised, if not unwilling, to learn that Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata and Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2 have roughly the same proportion and density of melody and structure in them.

The idea that anyone would be disappointed to find that music has structure seems very stange to me, when those same people would presumably be less disappointed in the knowlege and acceptance that a painting, novel, building, play, sculpture, etc., has it – but there are all kinds of structures at play in a work of music anyway – harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, timbral – OK, some works are more overtly and consciously structured in one or more ways than others are, but that’s really rather beside the point.

When I compose the basic ideas just come straight into my head and for me it’s a highly emotional process, but at the same time you have to know how to put a piece together so, yes, the rational brain has to come into it otherwise what you write wouldn’t go anywhere and more likely than not would not make a satisfactory experience for the listener. The great composers have that special and rare ability to control and utilise both the emotional and rational and that is why their music is so satisfying and why it lasts.

I don’t accept that the composed and the constructed are somehow opposed categories. Unless one still buys into the ludicrous 19th century mythology of the composer waiting for some mystical inspiration, then simply committing this to paper – I doubt whether that could be said of almost any composer of note.

Both advocates and detractors of new music can frequently fall into the trap of judging new music in terms of how it was put together rather than what results.

John Cage’s 4’33”

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

I don’t think there are many who don’t understand the point of Cage’s 4’33”. Having read a lot about it, I think I do.

In my opinion it was an interesting idea, a novel way of thinking and a useful piece of thought-provoking philosophy for which Cage deserves full credit.

What I object to is the pretence that it is a piece of great music – or even that it is music at all. It isn’t: it’s an experiment concerning silence and sound. It’s also a great piece of showmanship and marketing and a good little earner.

I’d say it’s an invitation to listen to the sounds that are going on anyway even when the instrumentalist on stage is not playing. As such, saying it’s not music is not so much a description of the piece as a way of declining the invitation. The invitation is precisely this: an invitation to see what happens if for a moment we don’t divide sounds into “music” and “extraneous noise”, an invitation to appreciate the sounds around us which we so often ignore.

Silence as such has little to do with it – the piece consists of the sounds which can be heard in the concert hall even though the pianist (or other performer) is not playing.

It’s also a neatly explicit manifestation of Cage’s ideas about the audience being as responsible as the composer or the performer for the musical experience. (The composer abdicates responsibility for providing coded sound, the performer is instructed to remain silent, the audience provides the “art” by interpreting whatever it is they do hear for a specified length of time. It’s the exactness of the time-frame, 4’33”, that’s the clever bit.)

There is a score, in fact – and the piece is in three movements!

There’s another aspect to 4’33” as well … that question of “the anticipation of the start of a piece of music”. In the world of conductorless chamber music, quite a few players – especially those who work frequently together – will vouch that there is a “feeling” when it’s the right moment to start.

It is performance art, or conceptual art, and a gimmick, but I suppose it is to make people question the difference between music and a “performance” among other things. Is noise when structured, highlighted or directed by a human, a piece of music, or is it still noise but art?

Cage is more famous (or infamous) than other avant-garde composers because of it but his other works and philosophy would guarantee some interest in him without 4’33” I would have thought … and there was only one “composition”, it wasn’t the start of a genre of silence or non-music.

As regards Cage’s status, he’d already written more than enough to be highly regarded by the time of 4’33”, and continued to write prolifically after it. So his status had he not written the piece would probably not be too different amongst fans of modernism. The chances that the general public would have heard of him are slim, but then we all know that matters not a jot really.

I find it hardly credible that a work by Cage from over 50 years ago, still creates controversy.

This is all water under the bridge by now and music has moved on.

That is not to understate the importance of 4’33” as an artefact that has changed the way so many musicians have conceived their work subsequently.

By its title Cage is reminding us that in essence all music is about time. Strip away everything that we normally associate with music – melody, harmony, rhythm, instrumental colour, narrative and, yes, even proscribed sound, and all you are left with is the articulation of time.

Stravinsky said that music’s sole purpose was to articulate time and St Augustine spent many years wrestling with the fact that God could not hear the prayers and hymns directed to him since they could only take place in time and he lived in eternity, where there isn’t any!

So to me Cage’s absolute zero work is as elemental to contemporary thinking about music as Einstein’s theories are to physics.

Here’s what Hans Keller said about Cage in 1970:

John Cage, on the other hand, gets as near to communication-less stimulation as the unmusical mind can: I am not offending him with this remark, for he does not, in fact, regard himself as a musician. When he “writes” a piece for several loudspeakers, each tuned to a different wavelength, he makes absolutely sure that he communicates nothing, and that any meaning which arises is the work of the listener who, with the help of Cage’s stimulation, thus turns into a do-it-yourself composer. But Cage’s influence on highly musical composers is vast: in what we have behind us in the second half of the twentieth century the stress has lain heavily on stimulation at the expense of communication.

I don’t know how valid his views are today, or even how valid they were in 1970, but perhaps he had a point.

Cage didn’t believe silence was possible. He tells the story of being in some sort of super sound proof room at Harvard and still hearing his heart beat and pulse.

Cage was obviously on to something, otherwise people wouldn’t still be arguing about whether 4’33” is or isn’t music more than fifty years after it was conceived.

Surely part of the point of it was to say that the boundary between what is and isn’t music is more a line in the sand than a strict division. If the question “where is the boundary between music and non-music” were to be treated as a “koan” as in Zen Buddhism, 4’33” could be imagined to be the response, not an “answer” which can be reproduced, but a response which needs to be experienced.

Apart from which, there’s enough categorisation in the world.

When should a conductor climax?

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Toscanini was famous for claiming to adhere strictly to the score, avoiding any modification of what the composer had written, but a friend once proved to him that he was in fact making slight nuances. Toscanini admitted this saying “one cannot be a machine”.

If you play music exactly as written it sounds dull and dead. In particular a slight rubato, an almost imperceptible constant varying of the timing from beat to beat, is necessary.

The greatest interpreters are those who seem to do this so naturally that an innocent listener often doesn’t seem to notice it outwardly, though they feel inwardly that the performance is somehow more alive. Elgar in particular was famous for doing this, and in his recordings, very often he doesn’t follow the score exactly.

I read an interview with Sir Andrew Davies around the time he was embarking on recording his Vaughan Williams symphony cycle in which, inter alia, he criticized Sir John Barbirolli for “stopping to smell the flowers along the way”. That immediately rang alarm bells, since I’d always considered Barbirolli to be a glorious interpreter of RVW’s music (as indeed did the composer himself). More than once I’ve pointed out that I find listening to Sir Andrew Davies’s performances rather like driving on a motorway from London to Edinburgh: we get on at the beginning and arrive at the destination at the allotted time, but with very little sense of any landmarks along the way.

If you listen very carefully to a really convincing performance of, say, Beethoven or Stravinsky, even one which respects the score in detail, you’ll find minute variations in speed, rhythm and dynamics not marked in the score, and it’s those that give the music life and make a performance one to listen to again and again with pleasure.

What marks out those conductors who successfully build climaxes is surely their ongoing attention to detail, and the realization that these things don’t just happen, but need something to grow from. If the way isn’t properly prepared, then the likelihood is that the moment will seem imposed, or worse still, underwhelming.

Knowing exactly where the climax comes is in itself certainly not a universal talent: even more interestingly, though, different conductors may find unorthodox places for the peak, and still be persuasive (Sir Charles Mackerras in the first movement of Walton’s Symphony No. 1 is an example which springs immediately to mind).

Le Sacre du Printemps by Igor Stravinsky

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

Marvellous, organised, musical chaos, as much now as it ever was. And as much a test piece for any orchestra as it ever was.

Perhaps when I first heard Le Sacre du Printemps it was quite a shock and very exciting. I still think it one the pivotal works in musical history, but I also see it as the final glorious climax of 70 years (from Glinka, through Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov) of the Russian nationalist school. It sounds intensely Russian and stretches the developments of that school about as far (and just beyond) harmonically, rhymically, etc., as it could conceivably go. No wonder Stravinsky started to change direction somewhat after its completion, he knew what he had achieved and that he could go no further down that road.

I first heard Le Sacre du Printemps in Solti’s 1974 Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording and will never forget that first hearing. It was rarely off the turntable for many weeks afterwards. It is surely the most elemental work in the repertoire and even the greatest of orchestras are challenged as witness the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the BBC Proms a couple of years ago.

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