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

shortest webern piece
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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”).

Humphrey Searle

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Last night, I had a bit of a listen to Searle’s Symphony No. 1. I’ve heard it described as grim and dour, but I found it rather engaging – what does that say about me, I wonder?

Anyway, Searle seems to have occupied a very difficult position in UK musical life, in the beginning too “advanced” for the conservative elements and eventually too “traditional” for the avant-garde ones.

But is there a case for reconsidering Searle’s music in the 21st century, I wonder?

I have to admit I don’t find Searle’s music has lasted as well as I thought it would when I was about 20. I used to admire the First Symphony, especially in Boult’s fine Decca recording, but I don’t often listen to his music today.

An interesting feature of the First Symphony is that he deliberately used the same series that Webern used in his Op. 28 Quartet, to show that music of very different character could be composed using the same 12-note row. At the time there were ill-informed criticisms that 12-tone music was limited in scope.

I should like to hear again his opera Hamlet which I thought better than some which have been less neglected.

Searle stated that his First Symphony bears the marks of having been written during (what we can now regard as) the early years of the cold war, hence the atmosphere of foreboding. It’s not what you’d call awash with colour, that’s true, but neither is Sibelius. I think he was just afraid that everyone would get blown to bits in a nuclear war between East and West, as many people were at that time.

Giacinto Scelsi

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2010 by Robin Gosnall

Is Scelsi the forgotten man of 20th century music par excellence?

Well, perhaps not forgotten, as such. I do think that he didn’t, and doesn’t, fit neatly into the usual mould of musically and intellectually bankrupt avant-garde composers because he wasn’t musically and intellectually bankrupt. The destructive, screaming left, that champions anything it sees as being against tradition, has a hard time with the aristocratic Scelsi who remained all his life a benign, decent, conservative and fascinating man.

In addition, most of what Scelsi wrote he worked hard at and he actually meant to write it. Not for him the random chance, but, as for Webern, every note mattered. He was a craftsman who took immense pains over what he wrote. Moreover, he was an extremely talented virtuoso pianist. Such a combination of skill and hard work sits uneasily with the usual run of posturing and pretentious frauds calling themselves composers in the 20th century. This unease has continued, so that the sycophants and fellow travellers of contemporary music today don’t give Scelsi the space that they allot to other talent-free artists whose music is as empty as their own heads.

That the man was slightly mad is probable; that his madness was akin to genius is also likely. I doubt anyone would enjoy everything he wrote but there is much of fascination and much of beauty, with influences way back to medieval chant and Renaissance polyphony – all of which Scelsi studied assiduously.

He is arguably most famous for Quattro Pezzi and his fascination for the constituent elements of sound, but it would be a mistake to believe that this was all he was. Personally, I think it’s a very minor part and there is much to enjoy in the works of a hard-working, deep-thinking, unusual, original and eminently capable musician.

For anyone interested in listening to some Scelsi, I’d suggest two pieces in particular that would repay the time involved are his Uaxuctum and the Suite No. 9.

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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Igor Stravinsky conducts L’oiseau de feu

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2009 by Robin Gosnall

Here are some of Stravinsky’s thoughts on other composers, taken from Robert Craft’s less than reliable book Conversations with Igor Stravinsky:

I remember seeing Mahler in St. Petersburg. His concert there was a triumph. Rimsky was still alive, I believe, but he wouldn’t have attended because a work by Tchaikovsky was on the programme (I think it was Manfred, the dullest piece imaginable). Mahler also played some Wagner fragments and a symphony of his own. Mahler impressed me greatly, himself and his conducting.

Rachmaninov’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl. He was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace. That is a great deal.

Ravel? When I think of him, for example in relation to Satie, he appears quite ordinary. His musical judgement was quite acute, however, and I would say that he was the only musician who immediately understood Le Sacre du Printemps.

Satie was certainly the oddest person I have ever known, but the most rare and consistently witty person, too. No one ever saw him wash – he had a horror of soap. He was always very poor, poor by conviction, I think. His apartment did not have a bed but only a hammock. In winter Satie would fill bottles with hot water and put them flat in a row underneath his hammock. It looked like some strange kind of marimba.

We – and I mean the generation who are now saying “Webern and me” – must remember only Schoenberg’s perfect works, the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Herzgewächse, Pierrot, the Serenade, the Variations for orchestra and the Seraphita song from Op. 22. By these works Schoenberg is among the great composers. They constitute the true tradition.

If I were able to penetrate the barrier of style (Berg’s radically alien emotional climate) I suspect he would appear to me as the most gifted constructor in form of the composers of this century. His legacy contains very little on which to build, however. He is at the end of a development.

I would like to admit all Strauss operas to whichever purgatory punishes triumphant banality. Their musical substance is cheap and poor; it cannot interest a musician today. I am glad that young musicians today have come to appreciate the lyric gift in the songs of the composer Strauss despised, and is more significant in our music than he is: Gustav Mahler.

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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.”

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