Sphinx Organization, Wigmore Hall

At Wigmore Hall on Sunday, I went to a concert by Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based non-profit who champion diversity in classical music. The concert featured chamber music by African-American composers, alongside our very own Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was, of course, named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And in what much surely be a rare case of recursive naming, the composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson was named after him. Perkinson was born in in 1932, and died in 2004. And it was a work composed just before his death that stood out in this concert: his short and rather innocuously-named Movement for String Trio.

Coming after a quartet arrangement of Strayhorn and Ellington’s jazz standard Take the A Train, the solemn Bach-like counterpoint of the piece took me completely by surprise. Perkinson plays games with the rhythm, introducing an element of wonkiness which prevents it being Baroque pastiche. The result had something of that mysterious, simple effectiveness that is somehow able to leave a deeper impression than music of much greater ambition.

Listen here (youtube).

Read a review of the whole concert by Bernard Hughes on The Arts Desk.


Time’s Echo

By Peter Davison

At a time when classical music is losing its cultural significance, it is reassuring to read a book in high praise of major works by major composers, reminding us of a time when serious music was relevant to more than just an educated elite. The American musicologist and critic Jeremy Eichler’s recent publication, Time’s Echo, makes a convincing case that the wide appreciation of great music prevents collective amnesia, thus lessening the chance that humanity will repeat its most egregious errors. In our contemporary world, the re-emergence of authoritarianism and bitter ideological disputes feels like a regression to a former historical era. We can even perceive the slow decline of classical music as evidence of a more general wish to forget who we are, as political expediency and the banalities of celebrity culture obscure historical truth. A society that prefers fantasy over reality is surely in trouble.

Jeremy Eichler reminds us that classical music is vital to our sense of continuity with the past, as well as preserving the inherited values of our collective identity. He argues that the music of memorial, written by the likes of Schönberg, Richard Strauss, Britten and Shostakovich, can reawaken shared memory far more effectively than even the most imposing physical monument, because music exists outside of time and speaks directly to the human heart. But, without our active engagement, these works will surely disappear and take their memories with them. 

Eichler’s argument is convincing, not least because his prose possesses such fluency, precision and passion. The book is itself an act of memorialisation, even an act of cultural rescue. His research is meticulous, visiting locations associated with the composers and their works, delving also into their personal archives for original material to support his case. He discovers continued sensitivity around the reputations of these composers, as well as evidence of the personal and historical connections that existed between them. Read Eichler and suddenly classical music really matters again as a way of telling the human story with its search for universal truths in shared experiences. Can we then afford not to listen to this music, not to value it greatly, not to learn its timeless lessons?

Eichler begins his account with the controversial figure of Arnold Schönberg, whose 7-minute narrated work from 1947, A Survivor from Warsaw, was a surprising hit after its first performance in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The music presents the listener with a visceral depiction of antisemitic violence and cruelty. Yet we soon discover that Serge Koussevitsky, who had commissioned the work through his Foundation, was queasy about performing it, despite himself being a Jew. Meanwhile, in post-war West Germany, the authorities felt obliged to alter the text to reduce its impact.

Schönberg always presented himself as an artist in ‘world historic’ terms, a vessel of progress and, according to Eichler, as the personal axis of a power struggle between German and Jewish culture. The burdens of history were always tearing him to pieces. In his youth, Schönberg had been an ardent Pan-German nationalist, devotedly following Wagner and writing ambitious works in a ripe late-Romantic style. He even invented serialism to secure ‘the supremacy of German Music,’ words that would later haunt him after he embraced his Jewish identity in response to the antisemitic persecution which forced him into exile in the USA. 

His unfinished opera Moses und Aron (1932) sought a synthesis that could provide an answer to his crisis of identity. Moses represents the transcendent Word of God, which is incomprehensible to ordinary people for whom the divine message must be sugar-coated with lyrical sensuality. Moses lacks the knack for communication which Aron possesses, a shortcoming which acts upon him like a curse. The opera was never completed, in part because the work’s tension between intellect and feeling could not be resolved. To Schönberg, Judaism meant revering God as law, an abstract authoritarian presence, while German Romanticism increasingly represented to him a pagan world of love and longing. Although he claimed otherwise, the two sides of Schönberg’s character, heart and brain, were forever at war.

But did they have to be? Schönberg wanted to solve every problem with a once and for all solution, whether he was redrafting the timetable of the Berlin tram system or proposing the creation of a Unity Party to champion the cause of a Jewish homeland. His rigour took things to extremes. Eichler tells us that Schönberg sent his plan for a solution to the Jewish question to Thomas Mann for comment and received a lukewarm response. Mann warned him that his views might be perceived as ‘fascist’ in tone, even copying the antics of the Nazis. Schönberg had informed Mann that he himself intended to take charge of the party and would demand total obedience from its members. In truth, serialism was another product of his cerebral approach to communication, a way of exerting the intellect’s control over musical pitches. He had become Moses without Aron. Yet Eichler presents us with a sympathetic portrait of the defiant composer whose experiments with tonality had such a profound impact on music in the twentieth century.

Schönberg’s nemesis, we might imagine, would be the Bavarian composer, Richard Strauss, a thoroughly bourgeois character steeped in Wagner, who at first had supported the young Schönberg but came to consider him a madman. Strauss’s reputation has long been stained by his flirtations with the Nazi regime in the 1930s and for his egocentric Nietzschean outlook, which rejected religion and metaphysics in favour of  ‘superman’ individualism. Some commentators perceive a direct link between Nazi ideology and Nietzsche’s revolutionary anti-Christian polemic. 

But Strauss, like Nietzsche, could never quite rid himself of a longing for transcendence which was the hallmark of German Romanticism. Yes, Strauss was naïve, often shallow and smug, but he was not a monster, and he came to regret his contact with senior members of the Nazi party. Eichler focuses on Strauss’s late masterpiece Metamorphosen (1945), a virtuosic work written for twenty-three solo strings. With a series of powerful insights, Eichler encapsulates Strauss’s grief and need for contrition. In particular, he draws our attention to the quotation from the funeral march of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony which Strauss tags In Memoriam towards the end of the score. Inevitably the question is asked, in memory of what? Eichler senses a deliberate ambiguity. Surely Strauss is not memorialising the fallen tyrant Adolf Hitler. Unlikely, since by this time, the regime had murdered his son’s mother-in-law and stripped Strauss of his official titles. But the beautiful and heroic dream of German Romanticism was certainly over, its cultural landmarks reduced to rubble. In Metamorphosen, Strauss remembers and regrets; remembers the idealism and visionary works of Beethoven, Wagner, Goethe et al, and regrets his own political naivety and capacity for superficial diversion. His music signals a painful confession. Eichler’s account of the work and Strauss’s state of mind is deeply moving, so that we can only feel sorrow and forgiveness towards the ageing composer. 

Eichler then turns to a later work, Benajmin Britten’s pacifist statement, the War Requiem of 1962. He cites and questions the often-quoted myth that Britten was the first British composer of any significance since Henry Purcell, but he does not provide the evidence fully to dismiss the idea. What of the generation of Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams? The latter’s Third Symphony is surely one of the most poignant of all elegies for the fallen of the First World War, while his Sixth is an appropriately bleak response to the Second. Elgar also gave poignant voice to collective grief in The Spirit of England (1917), a work which Britten greatly admired.

That said, Britten’s War Requiem uniquely attempts to bind modernity to the past, much like the new Coventry Cathedral for whose opening in May 1962 the piece was commissioned. The shell of a medieval church, bombed on a dark night in 1940, is juxtaposed with a concrete hangar of radical newness. The anima loci is not lost on Eichler, who describes both the new cathedral and Britten’s music as ‘a constant reminder of the thinness of civilisation’s veneer and of the human capacity for self-destruction.’ The War Requiem places the vivid religious theatre of grand Masses by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz and Verdi, alongside the subjective alienation of Wilfred Owen’s  poetry from the First World War. It is a work of heartfelt grief, offering both a critical assessment of war and emotional consolation for the dead and those they leave behind. The first performance was as a public occasion the last time a living British composer of classical music could claim to act as a voice for the whole nation. But the work was also an act of international reconciliation, and its reach was also fascinating. According to Eichler, Shostakovich loved the work, risking the wrath of his political masters who had refused permission for a Russian soloist to be present at the premiere to sing the soprano part.

The friendship between the two composers led Shostakovich to dedicate his 14th symphony to Britten, a work that dances with death and flirts with nihilism, as disturbing as it is finely wrought. This despair had followed the controversy of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony ‘Baba Yar’, a setting of poetry by Yevgeny Yevtushenko which commemorated the 30,000 victims, mainly Jewish, of a notorious massacre in the outskirts of Kiev in 1941. Eichler tells us that the Soviet leader Khruschev lectured Shostakovich face to face, complaining that such negative emotions undermined the optimism of the State and its citizens in their pursuit of a socialist Utopia. 

Despite further intimidation of the performers by the regime, the premiere of the 13th Symphony went ahead, and audiences adored it. It touched a deep vein of unexpressed grief in the Russian soul. Shostakovich found himself under constant pressure to toe the official Soviet line, and it broke him physically and mentally. He was, like Thomas Mann’s protagonist in his novella Death in Venice, an artist torn between his need to be accepted by the Establishment and the personal torments that raged within. Such psychological conflicts are among the key messages of Eichler’s book. Artists of this stature are inevitably caught between the desire for the public accolades which flatter them and secure their livelihoods, and the call of their integrity that rebels against the fickle and shallow world of the governing classes; an elite eager to claim great art as an adornment to their vanity. Nobody endured political hypocrisy more than Shostakovich, and Eichler reminds us that, when he died, those who had condemned him most were first in the queue to accompany his coffin.

But Time’s Echo is primarily a book about how human societies grieve and remember grief, and the role that serious classical music plays in ensuring that we retain a relationship with the past and the dead upon whose shoulders we stand. For the Soviets, the horrific scale of sacrifice was not the issue. Their chief concern was to defend their country and political system, and the World Wars were, in their eyes, the product of bourgeois greed and exploitation. In Marxian terms, the wheels of destiny must be allowed to grind without human sentiment. Russian War memorials commemorated great loss of life, which was accepted as a necessary sacrifice in a process of national rebirth. Atrocities committed by Nazis against other racial groups within Russia, while not condoned, were not considered relevant to the Socialist project.

In Britain, a fetish for modernity was another attempt to forget. Britain was tired of struggle and saw the two World Wars as one protracted conflict against the fascist inclinations of mainland Europe. Eichler suggests with gentle admonition that the British were not that interested in the Holocaust in the immediate post-war period, applying censorship to sanitise the earliest film and journalistic reports. Benjamin Britten missed something significant, he claims, by not acknowledging the Jewish sacrifice in his War Requiem. But there is danger in setting one horrific war crime against another in some kind of grisly competition. If Russian indifference was ideological, then British reticence was to ensure their own national remembrance was not obscured by the overwhelming scale of Nazi violence. Eichler identifies that the crux of the War Requiem occurs with Britten’s setting of Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting,’ when a soldier meets the man he has killed in hell. A single human tragedy is thus elevated by music to the status of a universal symbol, marking the deaths of all victims of war.

According to Eichler, Germany remains shy of memorialising its past, as if Strauss’s evasions were not unusual. Some truths may be too difficult to face, and it should be no surprise that Germans did not like being cast as sadistic villains in A Survivor from Warsaw. Then art inevitably softens the brutality of lived experience. There is no doubt that the ritualisation of grief, making it beautiful to sense and glorifying sacrifice can give credence to what Wilfred  Owen called ‘The old Lie’ – that there is something innately glorious in giving one’s life for one’s country. Music can dilute the visceral nature of human suffering like no other artform, so that even Schönberg’s restless dissonances cannot replicate the full terror of a real time and place. Afterall, his narrative in A Survivor from Warsaw is fictional. When, in its final bars, the male chorus sings the Shema Yisrael, we feel uplifted by their faith and heroic defiance, gladly forgetting the sense of futility and cruelty endured by most Holocaust victims. An act of redemptive imagination here obscures reality by turning it into something like an epic war film. Think of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, which both disturbs and entertains with its Hollywood slickness, accompanied by John Williams’ tuneful score. By comparison, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, a biographical account of life in the concentration camps, verges on the unreadable because he spares us nothing. 

Levi wants us to taste the sinew and the blood, to arouse our anger and despair, although this brutal realism risks demoralising the reader. Eichler prefers to cling to hope, and he is indeed right to say that the musical masterpieces covered in his book are restorative acts of remembrance, even if they dilute the incomprehensible tragedies from which they originate. Reality is in such instances so disgusting that it cannot be recreated in art nor permanently held in memory. All healing processes include a degree of forgetting; a constructive amnesia that makes the unbearable bearable. We remember so that we can move on. Jeremy Eichler’s Time’s Echo tells us why classical music must remain part of our collective culture. It confers dignity and purpose upon those who have suffered and paid with their lives, and it binds us to them in moments of precious beauty. Without such music, there would only be despair.

Time’s Echo by Jeremy Eichler is available from Faber

Peter Davison is a concert programmer and cultural commentator who was formerly artistic consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.

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Who Needs Classical Music?

I recently finished Julian Johnson’s 2002 book Who Needs Classical Music? It sets out to question relativism in our attitudes to musical taste, and makes a case against the marginalisation of classical music in modern life. Johnson wants to emphasise the objective aspects of music, against what he sees as modern culture’s overly marketised, individualist assumptions about how we should engage with the arts.

He writes insightfully, at times inspiringly, about how classical music works, what makes it distinctive, and why the arts and intellectual life matter. But he is on less firm ground when writing about the contemporary culture within which classical music sits.

There is little quotation or citation in this book. Johnson constructs his own targets to strike, with broad-brush summaries of ‘so the argument runs’, and a lot of cosy analogies – ‘we wouldn’t treat x in this way, so why music?’ His evidently deep academic understanding of classical music sits in marked relief to his breezy approach outside of it. He shows little curiosity about what popular culture actually does for people, and at times adopts rather dismissive language – despite writing from a country that has made an incredibly rich and vibrant contribution to Western popular music in the decades since the Beatles, a fact which surely has some bearing on public attitudes towards music generally.

This casual manner is unfortunately summed up by a quoted paragraph on the book’s back cover, which begins: ‘To talk of art as cultural capital recalls the attitude that made the slave trade possible’ – an unworthy attempt to borrow gravity from historic suffering.

That said, there’s no doubt that Who needs classical music? mostly does what it intends to do: make an intelligent and galvanising case for classical music – for those already wanting to hear it, at least. Today, twenty years on, a book like this would be written by a Brylcreemed Telegraph columnist scoring culture-war points about classical music and the decline of The West. So we should be grateful that it’s better than that. But it nonetheless remains rather limited in its purview.

Who Needs Classical Music? is available from OUP.

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Class, Control, and Classical Music

‘Class? Oh God, who even talks in that way anymore?’ 

The above quote, from a young musician, appears in Anna Bull’s 2019 book Class, Control and Classical Music. I think it’s indicative of a certain squeamishness among the British middle classes at the prospect of talking about class in a meaningful way. We might joke that we’re middle class when we buy quinoa at Waitrose, but that serves to render it safely trivial, a matter of mere consumer choice.

The UK classical music world is certainly no stranger to discussions about accessibility and inclusion. Often, particularly in online spaces, such issues seem to generate more heat than light. So it’s therefore refreshing to come across a perspective as thorough, scholarly and considered as this book. 

Bull begins by telling her own story. As a talented middle-class child who studied cello and piano, classical music became a hugely meaningful part of her young identity and gave her deeply fulfilling experiences. But during higher education she began to feel that the art form was ‘trying to shut out the contemporary world’. Its culture seemed disengaged from social issues, and unhealthily focussed on authority and control. Eventually these concerns led her to give up playing for a career in academia.

So as well as being a scholarly study, this book has a personal dimension too. What makes it particularly compelling is that it takes the form of an ethnographic study. Bull (re)visits the youth music environment, and looks at how class and authority manifests itself in extra-curricula ensembles in an area of southern England. She joins in and observes rehearsals for two orchestras, a choir and an opera company, and interviews a selection of their young musicians and adult leaders, in groups and one-on-one (all names are changed to preserve anonymity).

Such organisations are an important part of the UK’s classical music infrastructure – future professional musicians will pass through them. Having grown up in New Zealand, Bull has some outsider perspective on our class norms, even as she neatly slots into the musical culture. And while the period of ethnographic research was 2012-13, it seems likely that many of her observations are still relevant a decade on.

Despite Bull’s personal history with classical music, she recognises much that is of value. Her placements remind her that these ensembles are an important site for young ‘sociable geeks’, in which music-making gives them deeply pleasurable community experiences and a sense of shared identity. Meanwhile, female opera singers confide in her that singing has helped them to overcome negative body image. 

But Bull is interested in the ‘boundary-drawing practices’ that protect classical music’s privileged spaces (and levels of public funding) using the rhetoric of ‘autonomous art’ that transcends everyday concerns while effectively excluding others. She notes that middle-class children are more likely to take up classical music not only for financial reasons, but also because its intensive, one-to-one tuition style ‘shares a logic’ with aspirational middle-class parenting – the future-oriented cultivation of the individual child. Group-based musical learning, she notes, is less popular with middle-class parents when it’s offered. 

Bull also describes the ‘curious centrality of strong authority’ in classical music: the focus on accuracy and precision through hard work, the musical ‘work concept’ that prioritises the score, the frequently authoritarian role of (usually male) conductors. She concedes that these forms of control can deliver successful artistic results, such as the effective performance of complex orchestral music. But throughout she points out alternative approaches to music-making, citing research on musical cultures that afford different means to learn, and where different power dynamics are at play. 

The question of classed boundary-drawing becomes particularly interesting when we learn that her choir had seceded from the county music service in an effort to keep its standards high, while an orchestra had been privately formed by those disaffected with the county’s ensemble. Such efforts, needless to say, do not end up having simple or class-neutral outcomes, and Bull likens them to exclusionary enclaving in education and housing. It feels revealing when a chorister describes the choir’s social scene as ‘everyone who’s sort of…’ before trailing off. It’s not the only time her interviewees struggle to articulate something that’s normally unspoken. It leads Bull to a crucial question: ‘at what point does musical excellence begin to detract from the wider social good?’

Subtler distinctions of class complicate the picture. The experiences of her musicians varied considerably depending on their familiarity with classical music’s social world – for example, a more precarious class position was a common factor for those who recounted harsh experiences with music teachers that were arguably bullying. Tellingly, however, each framed these stories as necessary criticism which drove them to improve, however upsetting it was at the time – the need to defer to authority was strongly felt. One young opera singer claimed to have enjoyed rehearsals even while admitting she had sometimes wanted to flee the room in tears. Bull wonders to what extent the emphasis on enjoyment is a ‘compulsory’ part of narrating such experiences. None of this is to say that those with lower class positions are less invested in classical music – in fact, one musician from a genuinely working-class background felt hugely validated by the upward class journey that classical music had given him.

Bull’s class analysis is alive to intersections with gender and race – though the latter is less well represented in a study of provincial England. One of the complexities arrives in the ‘imagined futures’ of her interviewees – would they take the uncertain road of a career in music? Many of the comfortably upper-middle-class musicians decided to pursue more lucrative professions, while making use of the connections they’d made through music. Of those determined to follow music, a pattern emerged: only men looked to attain the authoritative roles of composer or conductor, while those who settled on a life as a ‘humble and hardworking’ musician skewed more towards women. 

Bull contextualises British classical music culture in the history of its leading conservatoires and exam boards. The founding of these institutions was bound up in 19th-century ideas of the moral worth of ‘the great composers’ over working-class Music Hall. And here I learned a surprising fact: women once made up the majority of British conservatoire students in the early decades, especially for piano. Formal music tuition acted like a finishing school for respectable femininity within a cult of domesticity, in which women learned to sit demurely and play. At the same time, Bull notes the rise and fall of the Tonic Sol-fa movement – an alternative form of notation that, for a while, encouraged mass working-class involvement in choral festivals.

The boundaries of respectability within classical music, Bull argues, are now visible in questions of repertoire. Her choral singers disagree over the value of John Rutter’s music, and an orchestra conductor likens popular film scores to a low-nutrition McDonalds meal (even as he programmes them for a course!)…just another day in an art form with a superiority complex. Snobbery is alive and well among her musicians, though how many of them would now look back and cringe at their younger selves is another question. I shudder to think of some of the opinions I might have offered as an earnestly musical 16 year old.

Bull links classical music’s relatively strict attitude to bodily movement to Christian ideals of transcendence – and here, a fascinating connection to repertoire emerges. When her conductors decide to diversify their programming with a Latin-American orchestral piece and ‘African’ choral songs, they both suggest some basic choreography. This is met with embarrassment or hostility from some musicians, who detect a betrayal of seriousness. But that dynamic of ‘now we’ll let our hair down for something lighter’ is instantly recognisable – and it becomes especially problematic when the choir try out load-carrying actions for the African songs (a real head-in-hands moment). Bull’s conclusion that ‘this music requires bodily movement to maintain the distinction from more ‘serious’ repertoire’ feels particularly insightful about what’s going on here.

Given all the above, it’s perhaps no surprise that Bull’s concluding chapter argues for many changes in the way music education works in this country. The oft-touted paternalistic dream among classical types – of giving every child free instrumental lessons in the traditional model – is not, in her view, a route to true musical enfranchisement. To a UK classical music world that currently feels under-valued, and that even self-narrates being under attack, the slant of this book might not feel especially welcome. But it’s not to dismiss the very real challenges our sector faces to say that Bull’s study of awkward class issues is also highly valuable, precisely because it’s so rare to have them discussed in such unflinching length and depth. ‘Who even talks in that way anymore?’ Perhaps we should learn to talk way more often.

Class, Control and Classical Music is a highly impressive and thought-provoking piece of research – to anyone with an interested in music education in the UK, I strongly recommend reading it. 

Class, Control and Classical Music by Anna Bull is available from OUP.

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Harold in Italy

Last night at the Southbank Centre, Peter Manning conducted the Bath Festival Orchestra in an all-French programme. This ensemble of early-career orchestral musicians was ‘re-launched’ in 2020, having previously been founded in 1959 by Yehudi Menuhin (he left in 1968).

The highlight of the evening was Berlioz’s Harold in Italy – my first time hearing it live – and violist Dana Zemtsov brought this eccentric, extrovert piece to joyous life. It’s always wonderful to see a performer thoroughly enjoying what they’re doing, and for much of it Zemtsov played with a smile. The programme was completed with the brisk Overture No. 1 by Louise Farrenc and Poulenc’s suave and witty Sinfonietta in the second half. The audience turnout in the Queen Elizabeth Hall – arguably a better acoustic experience than its larger sibling next door – was impressive.

My only quibble with the concert is the way two orchestral players introduced the pieces. Regular readers will know I have Many Thoughts about musicians speaking to the audience, and I generally think this courtesy is not observed often enough. But it’s better done well or not at all, and in this case an apparent effort to be unstuffy and casual veered into disappointing incoherence. But this was a minor mis-step in an otherwise enjoyable evening – and thankfully the playing had much more polish.


Return to Rotherhithe

Musica Antica in Holy Trinity Church, Rotherhithe.

Last night I returned to Rotherhithe to hear another concert by Musica Antica – having first heard the group perform, and interviewed the group’s co-founder Oliver Doyle, earlier this year.

Like that summer concert, Holy Trinity church – with its excellent acoustic – was packed. But unlike that concert, we arrived in autumnal darkness, which enabled the performance to take place by the magic of candlelight.

The programme was music by Lully and Charpentier, among others, but one of the highlights of the evening was an unfamiliar name: Antonia Bembo (1640-c.1720). Her song Ha, Que l’absense was sung beautifully by the counter-tenor Tristram Cooke, as a break in the middle of a theorbo suite. He sang sitting down, side-on to the audience, totally out of the spotlight, which made its impact all the more startling.

As I discovered back in the summer, this group are presenting less familiar early music in an approachable and imaginative way. I strongly recommend signing up to their mailing list to follow their future events.


Yaniewicz at the Lithuanian Embassy

Steven Devine, Kate Semmens and Tabitha Appel at the Lithuanian Embassy, London.

I spent an informative and entertaining evening at the Lithuanian Embassy in London, learning about the life and music of composer, violin virtuoso and impresario Felix Yaniewicz (1762-1848), and his collaborations with the soprano Angelica Catalani (1780-1849).

I was invited by Josie Dixon – daughter of composer Ailsa Dixon as well as a several-times-great-grandaughter of Yaniewicz. Josie gave an impressive talk on Yaniewicz’s life, which started in Vilnius (a city celebrating its 700th anniversary this year) and later encompassed Italy, revolutionary France, England and ultimately Edinburgh, where he co-founded the Edinburgh Festival.

The concert that followed was given by Steven Devine on piano, alongside soprano Kate Semmens – who had great fun demonstrating the indulgent vocal ornamentations that made Catalani (in)famous – and violinist Tabitha Appel. 

I fully recommend a visit to the Yaniewicz website to find out more about this fascinating figure, including information about another of his activities – the custom decoration of Clementi pianos.


Inside The Temple Of Music

Shortly after arriving at Bearsted station in Kent, I found my way to a picturesque village green, bordered by Tudor houses and Oast kilns. Peeking over the roofs on the other side was the tower of Holy Cross Church. I’d taken two trains to get here under the assurance it would be open. 

I headed up a lane that wound gently uphill, and the church disappeared from view entirely. After a few minutes, I was starting to wonder if I’d taken the wrong road. Then I turned a corner, and suddenly I was right upon it. 

The first door I came to was locked. Continuing round, I found the southern porch, which was clearly the main entrance. The interior was fairly typical for a parish church. I was alone.

I checked my phone for the email describing the location of the door I needed, and where the key was kept. I found the latter on a large bunch, with a fearsomely long, medieval-looking companion.

The bell tower was locked, I’d been told, to prevent the public going up into the ringing chamber. No matter: I wasn’t interested in bells today. Feeling a bit like a man on a mission, I slowly opened the door into darkness. I turned on my phone torch to find the light switch, and the beam flashed across a pale face. This was who I had come to see.

Lights on, and he was brightly revealed: presiding like a judge over an open book, with large moustache and ruff. But this was also a mundane scene of casual storage – odds and ends cluttered a bench constructed around his pedestal. An undignified state, for one of Bearsted’s most illustrious sons.

I carefully shifted a few things aside (I would put them back before I left). I could now see the lengthy Latin inscription. In the recesses on either side, running up from the floor, were faintly etched staffs with winding snakes: the Rod of Asclepius, ancient symbol of medicine. And in the left-hand recess were two smaller books with words inscribed. Looking closely, one was marked ‘Misterium Cabalisticum’, the other ‘Philosophia Sacra’. 

This was the monument to Robert Fludd, born in nearby Milgate House, and buried in Holy Cross after his death in 1637. The inscription tells us that he travelled abroad, ad recipiendum ingenii cultum – ‘to receive the cult of genius’ – before returning home and being elected to the London College of Physicians.

Fludd was a doctor, but those two books of ‘cabbalistic mystery’ and ‘sacred philosophy’ suggest what he is best remembered for today: publications of occult science. In particular, his magnum opus Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia – ‘the metaphysical, physical, and technical history of the two worlds, namely the greater and the lesser’. 

Those ‘two worlds’ are the macrocosm and microcosm, as expressed by the Hermetic principle of correspondences between man and the universe: ‘as above, so below’. Utriusque Cosmi combines influences of Hermes Trismegistus with Christian Caballah, Astrology, and Alchemy, and includes a range of practical topics, from mathematics to optics, military strategy, and music. 

Creative Commons, see source.

Music, in fact, was particularly important to Fludd’s occult worldview, as can be seen in some of the sumptuous engravings that accompany his work. These visions, rich in wonder and mystery, have an enduring fascination – with tongues of flame, billowing clouds, and lines of radiating energy in geometric frameworks. And among them we find depictions of the monochord: a single-stringed instrument used to show the proportions of consonances, and a representation of universal harmony, or musica mundana.

For Fludd, in fact, the octave divisions of the string were a crucial metaphor for the universe. He positions the monochord at the centre of diagrams, running the scale from earth to God, matter to light, through the spheres of the elements, planets and angelic hierarchies. It also runs through the microcosm of man, representing the descent and re-ascent of the divine soul. In one engraving, a Monty Python-esque hand emerges from a cloud to adjust its tuning peg.

Creative Commons. See source.

Another part of the Utriusque Cosmi covers practical music theory. For this, Fludd constructed a fantastical memory palace, a ‘Temple of Music’ festooned with musical symbols around its columns, walls and towers. Its scheme is populated by legendary figures – the muse Thalia gives a music lesson in an alcove, Pythagoras listens to the hammers of the smithy in another. Apollo sits with his lyre, representing harmony, while Saturn stands on an hour-glass for rhythm. Two doors symbolise the ears, a spiral the motions of the air. Fludd’s introduction invites us to imagine the setting as Mount Parnassus, surrounded by woods, fields and fountains, and filled with dancing shepherds, satyrs and nymphs.

The Temple of Music, Creative Commons. See source.

This delightfully realised image showcases the Renaissance penchant for mnemonic devices. And in the final chapter of the treatise, Fludd turns to another intellectual fascination of his era: automata. He gives detailed instructions for building a mechanical psaltery, an instrument that can be hidden behind a curtain or a wall and play pavanes or galliards by itself, for the delight of dinner guests. 

Fanciful as all this may seem, Fludd’s ambitious publications, and the wondrous engravings that accompany them, have ensured him a place in intellectual history. In popular culture, he has also appeared in works of conspiracist fiction such as The Da Vinci Code, thanks to his association with the Rosicrucians. He wrote a defence of the two anonymous manifestos credited to that supposed secret society – the Order of the Rosy Cross – manifestos which were published to widespread consternation, promising great advancements of human knowledge for those worthy to receive their truths. 

Whatever the origins of those cultish documents, Fludd has perhaps inevitably been conflated with the Order, and assumed to have been a member. No doubt, the manifestos suggest an occult worldview very much in tune with his own. Among the Rosicrucian claims was a kind of singing, which could gather precious stones and move the princes of the world. In Fludd’s defence of the Fraternity, he writes of ‘wonderful music of true and mysterious power in every creature both animate and inanimate’. 

Much of Fludd’s work envisioned hidden forces behind observable reality, and so it seems somewhat fitting that this occultist’s monument is now locked away, sealed in Hermetic secrecy. I find his philosophy fascinating, partly because there is an appealing completeness to it, an audacious wholeness that opens up a different mental space to modern science, with its separate specialisms and materialist assumptions. 

And what, more precisely, is the nature of that appeal? As I’ve looked at the news this summer, with fires raging around the world, it’s been hard not to perceive a stark disconnect between the macro- and the micro-level events in our own time. We have highly developed and sophisticated science, the like of which Fludd could never have dreamed, informing us that our climate on which all earthly life depends is being systematically destabilised. But the microscopic trivia of the everyday still largely holds us in thrall, and enables its further destruction. For which you might ask: what is the point of all our intellectual progress? In four hundred years, it seems, we’ve travelled from universal harmony to universal cognitive dissonance.

I locked the door, put the key back, and left the church to have a look round the grounds. There are three carved beasts perched atop the tower, and on a cloudy day that threatened rain, the whole scene felt suitably gothic. But as I was about to leave to catch the train back to London the sun came out, and Holy Cross Bearsted stood bright against the dark sky. 

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. You can support Corymbus by buying me a coffee on PayPal, or subscribing to my Patreon. For updates on new posts, sign up to the mailing list.

Further reading:

Peter Ammann: The Musical Theory and Philosophy of Robert Fludd.

Dante Diotallevi: The Case of Robert Fludd

Urszula Szulakowska: Robert Fludd and His Images of The Divine

Frances Yates: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment 


Musica Antica Rotherhithe

Musica Antica Rotherhithe perform Lo Spedale in November 2018: photo credit Annika Derksen.

‘I got sick to death – particularly at university – of being asked to perform nothing but Handel and Bach. And I thought: there is more to music than this’.

I’m in the cafe at the British Library, speaking to Oliver Doyle. He’s a PhD student, harpsichordist and tenor, and in 2016 he co-founded Musica Antica Rotherhithe, a group which specialises in performing rare early repertoire. The previous week, I’d gone to Holy Trinity Church in Rotherhithe to hear their concert of opera excerpts by two 17th-century composers: Stefano Landi and Adriano Banchieri.

Those names would be a tough sell anywhere, you’d think – even more so in a residential part of London many aren’t familiar with. But the church was packed. Clearly this group was doing something right, and I wanted to find out more.

‘A lot of people said oh, it’s hard to get audiences for this’, Oliver says of his desire to break from the Bach-Handel mould. ‘And I thought: look at France, or Germany, Spain, Belgium…look at the audiences that will pack out venues to hear obscure 17th-century Air de cour or Italian opera of the same period. Why can’t we emulate that here?’

The concert certainly provided lessons in how to engage an audience. Before a note was played, Oliver introduced the music with a warm and easy manner, setting a tone of informality that made us feel included (it’s amazing how often this courtesy doesn’t happen, or is done poorly). After a particularly virtuosic trio in the first half by sopranos Camilla Seale and Emily Atkinson and countertenor Tristram Cooke, he turned to the audience from the harpsichord and said ‘feel free to applaud that’.

But this relaxed approach really came into its own for the surtitles, which were projected onto a screen behind the ensemble – only slightly obscured by the wandering head of a long theorbo. They paraphrased the gist of the libretto into modern parlance, and had the audience in fits of laughter. One character’s response to an overly effusive admirer, for example, was rendered as ‘not at all creepy’.

‘The way that I do this was entirely stolen from the Brighton Early Music Festival’, Oliver admits. He saw a low-tech opera production in which cast members held up humorous placards to summarise the libretto. He seems particularly proud that, in one of his translations, he managed to include a couple of quotes from Mean Girls.

But this sense of fun is balanced with a lightly-worn erudition and enthusiasm for the music. Oliver’s skills as historian and Italian speaker were evident in his excellent programme notes. Also impressive was the total lack of hand-wringing apologetics for the unusual repertoire – none of the tiresome ‘it may not be a masterpiece, but it’s still worth listening to…’ – nor overly grand claims for its worth.

A performance of Falvetti’s Il Diluvio Universale in 2020: photo credit Jo Furniss.

I wanted to know what the journey had been like, starting out as an unknown group to selling-out concerts. He’s clear that they’ve had one big advantage: Oliver’s father is the vicar at Rotherhithe. ‘We talk a lot about positions of privilege – a lot of classical musicians have gone to private school. I went to state school in Bermondsey, but my privilege was having a church in the back garden’.

This meant the group didn’t face the ‘crippling’ venue fees that most come up against. Though now, he says, the church makes more on the bar than they would in venue hire anyway. A strong trade in glasses of wine was certainly in evidence at the concert, as were a bewilderingly large selection of flavoured gins to take home.

But you still have to find an audience in the first place. Here, Oliver’s professional experience – marketing for The Sixteen and fundraising for English Touring Opera – put him in good stead. ‘I probably spend more time marketing than I do preparing my own side of the performances’, he admits.

Musica Antica Rotherhithe flier designs.

And what does that mean? ‘Immense flier runs of London. Everywhere we possibly can. All the city churches, libraries, supermarkets…’ What’s more, to establish their own brand they moved away from the familiar, tired format: a Carravagisti painting overlaid with text. They took the imaginative step of imitating documents of the period, starting with a mocked-up 17th-century playbill in a historical font.

‘As we went along we realised the more outlandish we could get, the more attention we’d attract’. For a concert of 15th-century repertoire, they reworked an image of the Chanssonier Cordiforme, a beautiful manuscript of love songs in the shape of a heart. ‘The amount of interest we had from people saying ‘I’ve never seen a heart-shaped flier before!’.…’ 

Gradually, what started out as a group of friends making music – including soprano Jessica Euker, the group’s other co-founder – gained a big enough audience that they could pay proper musician fees. Now, unlike Oliver, the majority of their performers are full-time professionals. But it has not been all smooth sailing, and various factors have affected sales – Covid, performing on the same day as an anti-Brexit march, and a generally lower enthusiasm for religious repertoire.

Performing rare music also comes with its own challenges. The performing edition of Landi’s La Morte d’Orfeo was riddled with errors. And that’s when there is published score at all. Part of the group’s mission is to make their own editions and put them online in the public domain – after his PhD, Oliver plans to do at least one piece a year that requires editing, resulting in a score that others can use. It’s hard work though – a book of Cavalli arias took him months to put together.

What advice can he give other groups starting out? Many, Oliver says, are too reticent in seeking mutual help. ‘Once you’ve worked in mainstream classical music, you realise people are constantly sending emails to each other saying: ‘I’ve got this concert, it’s not selling, can you mention it in your e-news’…that attitude I don’t think has been cottoned on to by smaller groups of young professionals’. When they’ve tried writing to such groups to propose marketing swaps, they ‘rarely if ever get a response’. 

Another mistake new ensembles make, he says, is going through the onerous process of setting up as a charity before having trialed  staging more than a handful of events. MAR have only recently become registered as one, and even then they ‘ran against numerous problems’ in securing the status.

Oliver sees the future for the group in moving to different venues, with Rotherhithe as ‘a test tube for developing interesting programmes’ that be taken elsewhere. This year they’ll perform a programme of female composers in Sheffield, and bring Nicholas Lanier’s music to the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the same space where he performed for Charles I 400 years ago (made possible by a small syndicate of Greenwich-based supporters).

Oliver recalls his introduction to early music as a 14 year old, when he was taken to hear Cavalli’s La Calisto at the Royal Opera House. He was unsure about going, expecting to hear something like Verdi, which he wasn’t keen on. Suffice it to say he was pleasantly surprised.

‘And from there on I thought, how wonderful is this music? If I, having come from my background, can fall in love with this stuff, who’s to say that lots of other people who aren’t from particular educational or wealth brackets can’t also enjoy this music?’ 

Visit the Musica Antica Rotherhithe website.

My blog posts are powered by caffeine. You can support Corymbus by buying me a coffee on PayPal, or subscribing to my Patreon.


The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York

By Peter Davison

At the end of May, I was delighted to attend the annual Colorado Mahlerfest to participate in the symposium which accompanies five intensive days of music-making. Founded in 1987 by the conductor Robert Olson, the festival is one of the world’s longest-running Mahler celebrations, taking place under the gaze of the Rocky Mountains in the university town of Boulder. Since 2016, Mahlerfest has been led by the Cardiff-based American conductor, Kenneth Woods. But, with Mahler performances no longer a rarity, his challenge is to find ways to rekindle the festival’s original pioneering spirit. 

Woods has followed Olson in performing a single symphony each year, although the emphasis has shifted to contextualising Mahler’s work. In 2023, the Symphony No.2, ‘The Resurrection’ provided the festival’s beating heart, alongside works by other composers ranging from Richard Wagner to the likes of Erich Korngold, Hans Gál, Luciano Berio and Scottish composer, Thea Musgrave.

The day-long symposium provides a more reflective moment in the festival’s busy schedule and a chance to explore the changing face of Mahler scholarship. Among the speakers this year was Joseph Horowitz, a renowned and sometimes controversial commentator upon the American classical music scene, who introduced his newly published novel, The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York.

The book offers a fictional account of Gustav and Alma’s brief period at the heart of American musical life, following Mahler’s acrimonious resignation from the Vienna Opera in the summer of 1907. In truth, the scope of the text extends beyond its title, including significant moments in the couple’s troubled relationship that occurred in Europe such as the revelation of Alma’s adultery with Walter Gropius, the spectacular premiere of the Eighth Symphony in Munich and Mahler’s fabled meeting with Sigmund Freud in Leiden.

The stresses on the Mahler’s marriage were already present when they embarked for the USA late in 1907, having lost their eldest child Maria in the summer of that year, discovering too that Mahler was suffering from serious heart disease. New York represented an opportunity for creative and personal renewal but, on a pragmatic level, it was a chance for Mahler to earn the money that would allow him to keep composing during the down-season in Europe.

Crucially we are informed that Mahler came to New York as a belated replacement for the Hungarian conductor Anton Seidl, who had once been a trusted collaborator of Richard Wagner. Seidl had died unexpectedly in 1898, having won the hearts of New Yorkers with his Wagner performances and encouragement for American composers. His untimely death caused his supporters genuine grief. Mahler, it was hoped, would be a worthy successor, inheriting Seidl’s cultural legacy and further transforming American musical life. But it was not to be. 

Horowitz’s contention is that Mahler’s time in New York, where he took on a dual role as conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and what became the New York Philharmonic, was a failure because he did not understand the city’s classical music culture as Seidl had done. Seidl had loved New York and even adopted American citizenship. By contrast Mahler was homesick, the perpetual outsider who underestimated the sophistication of the Manhattan cognoscenti, especially its music critics whom he suspected of antisemitism. 

The received view is that Mahler was tyrannised by an ignorant ladies committee who preferred to hear Tchaikovsky more than the great works of the German canon, while the orchestra conspired against him. American classical music was a cultural backwater so that its composers lacked a viable tradition in which they could thrive. Whatever the truth of the matter, undoubtedly New York’s monied elites possessed the will to create a concert and opera-going culture of a quality unrivalled anywhere in the world. 

According to Horowitz, the ‘Mahler as victim’ narrative stems largely from the fourth and final volume of Henri Louis de la Grange’s vast biographical account of the composer, which idealises him to a fault. Alma Mahler’s reminiscences are also dismissive of the couple’s American hosts, even if she enjoyed the opportunities for socialising more than her husband. By comparison, the author paints a quite different picture in which a weary Mahler engaged only half-heartedly with American composers, treating the public as uneducated and the city’s music critics as inherently hostile. The orchestra’s anger, we discover, was to a degree justified, having learnt that Mahler had recruited a spy among their number who was passing on malicious gossip. The ladies of the committee, acting with forthright intent, insisted the spy should be sacked, and Mahler had to comply.

We are offered by the author a portrait of Mahler that is real. Here was a man of formerly prodigious energy weakened by illness, wounded by his experiences in Vienna and thus prone to paranoia. We can only imagine what might have ensued if Mahler’s American sojourn had not been cut short by his final illness. Would he have fully embraced the opportunity before him, realising that Seidl had bequeathed a well-informed and open-minded audience? Would Mahler ever have engaged with a musical innovator like Charles Ives, for example, with whom he potentially shared so much in common?

There’s reason to take Horowitz’s view of events seriously since, aside his trenchant opinions about the current state of classical music in the United States, he is acknowledged as a leading expert in the fin de siècle period of American musical history. He has also run orchestras and programmed concerts, knowing at first-hand how conversations unfold between celebrity artists, promoters and wealthy board members. His reconstruction of these dialogues therefore has a ring of authenticity. 

However, the most striking insights of The Marriage are about Alma. Horowitz told me that he did not set out to portray her in a more sympathetic light but that this emerged from observing her awkwardness in imaginary social interactions. The book lays bare the paradoxes of Mahler’s character which Alma had patiently to endure. His hypersensitivity and infantile insecurities co-existed with a tyrannical willpower which spared no one – particularly not Alma, least of all himself. 

We see how Alma was at one level willingly compliant with Mahler’s demands. She needed to be needed, to be lover, mother and nurse, as well as mid-wife to the products of genius. And, we are told, because she projected her father complex on Mahler, Freud predicted that she would stay with him, despite her magnetic attraction to the younger Gropius that was pulling her away. Then Alma was another bundle of contradictions, more unsure of herself in New York society than might have been expected, particularly when faced with independent-minded women such as Mary Sheldon and Mimi Untermeyer who were the negotiators for Mahler’s financial backers. Far from being interfering busy bodies, they proved themselves shrewd and decisive, knowing exactly what they did and did not want from their expensive maestro.

Horowitz reserves his strongest censure for Mahler’s poor relations with the New York press. They were by no means blindly set against Mahler, but nor did they withhold their legitimate doubts. They acknowledged Mahler’s skill as a conductor and the originality of his music, but his reworkings of scores by Beethoven and Schubert, while judged musically effective, were in the end considered a self-indulgence. The critics also found Mahler’s own music a puzzle, juxtaposing moments of great beauty and wilful ugliness. What we may now hear as ironical or exploring the dark side, they interpreted simply as breaking the laws of aesthetics. 

We are informed in the novel that Mahler consistently refused to meet his most significant opponent, Henry Krehbiel, the leading music critic of the day, because he did not like Mahler’s music and remained loyal to his deceased friend, Anton Seidl whom he considered to be a superior artist. Yet we learn too that Krehbiel and Mahler were two of a kind. Both were stubborn moralists sharing a Germanic cultural background steeped in Wagner. Both were eager to improve the general public’s taste and knowledge of musical history. 

In conclusion, I should draw attention to Horowitz’s use of language, which is vivid – occasionally extravagant. Most impressive are his poetical accounts of Mahler’s music which profoundly acknowledge the composer’s genius, signalling that the author has no wish to diminish Mahler’s musical achievements. Descriptions of rehearsals for the Fourth Symphony in New York and the triumphant premiere of the Eighth in Munich stand out, capturing in just a few words the spirit of these great, if vastly different, works. 

The Marriage is a brave experiment, following wherever the imagination leads to fill gaps in historical knowledge and to test the validity of long held assumptions. The approach is demanding for the uninitiated who will need to work hard to unpick the elaborate patchwork of interior narratives, flashbacks, cultural references, archive materials and real events. Helpfully, the author has provided a brief introduction and a twenty-page Afterword which identify key personalities and explain salient issues. In addition, a glossary of main characters will aid those entering for the first time into this esoteric world of big money and high ambition, tormented feelings and inspiring music.    

©Peter Davison

Details of Joseph Horowitz’s The Marriage: The Mahlers in New York can be found at

For further information about Colorado Mahlerfest go to