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Merry Christmas, Happy New Year

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

I’m returning in 2012 with more idle thoughts about culture, food, and music … until then enjoy this cool performance of my favourite song composed by Jerome Kern … please note the Maltese falcon on the piano … cognac … cigarettes … way too cool …

Lord Berners (1883-1950): Come on Algernon

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

Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, also known as Gerald Tyrwhitt, was a British composer of classical music, novelist, painter and aesthete. He is usually referred to as Lord Berners.

His father, a naval officer, was rarely home. He was raised by a grandmother who was extremely religious and self-righteous, and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. His mother ignored his musical interests and instead focused on developing his masculinity, a trait Berners found to be inherently unnatural.

The eccentricities Berners displayed started early in life. Once, upon hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, the young Gerald promptly decided that by throwing his mother’s dog out the window, he could teach it to fly. The dog was unharmed, though the act earned Berners a beating.

After devising several inappropriate booby traps, Berners was sent off to a boarding school in Cheam at the age of nine. It was here that he would first explore his homosexuality; for a short time, he was romantically involved with an older student. The relationship was abruptly ended after Berners accidentally vomited on the other boy.

After he left prep school, Gerald continued his education at Eton College. Later, in his autobiographies, Berners would reflect on his experiences at Eton, claiming that he had learned nothing while there, and that the school was more concerned with shaping the young men’s characters than supplying them with an education.

As well as being a talented musician, Berners was a skilled artist and writer. He appears in many books and biographies of the period, notably portrayed as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. He was a friend of the Mitford family and close to Diana Guinness.

Berners was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point having a giraffe as a pet and tea companion. His Rolls-Royce contained a small clavichord keyboard which could be stored beneath the front seat. At his house he had a 100-foot viewing tower constructed, a notice at the entrance reading: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.

He was also subject throughout his life to periods of depression. These became more pronounced when Berners, who had lived in Rome from 1939 to 1945, found himself somewhat out of favour after his return to England.

He died in 1950 at Faringdon House, bequeathing his estate to his companion Robert (‘Mad Boy’) Heber Percy, who lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.

His epitaph on his gravestone reads:

“Here lies Lord Berners
One of life’s learners
Thanks be to the Lord
He never was bored”.

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. 1: Vincent Price

Posted in 1911, Culture, Obituaries with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Taking a look back at what happened 100 years ago, I find that the actor Vincent Price was born on 27 May 1911. The clip is from The Comedy of Terrors, one of the funniest films you will ever see. Featuring Vincent Price himself, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone. If you don’t believe that a film could have such a great cast, check it out.

Vincent Price, a Suave but Menacing Film Presence, Is Dead at 82 (New York Times obituary)

Carlos Kleiber conducts Die Fledermaus

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on April 24, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Carlos Kleiber: Music’s Perfectionist Recluse (New York Times obituary)

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.

J.S. Bach: Chaconne from Partita No. 2

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by Robin Gosnall

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann, said about the Chaconne:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

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