All posts by Corymbus

In Every Corner Sing

A stained glass window of George Herbert at St. Andrew’s church, Bemerton.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In my experience, music is a great route to poetry. I’m fairly sure it was through the Five Mystical Songs by Vaughan Williams that I first discovered the works of George Herbert – the poet and rector of Bemerton, on the outskirts of Salisbury. Since his death in 1633 at the age of 39, Herbert has become known as one of Britain’s most loved and respected writers of religious verse.

Herbert’s words have been put to music by many composers. But in reading these poems, I’ve found the Vaughan Williams settings especially hard to shift from my mind. They contain some of his loveliest melodies, with a natural ease that perfectly marries Herbert’s deceptive simplicity. Take for example The Call, set in the Five Mystical Songs. Vaughan Williams takes up the skipping rhythm inherent in its first line, and makes it a defining feature.

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

John Drury’s Music At Midnight is a fascinating biography of Herbert, full of literary insight that has helped me to better understand his poetry on its own terms. He also adds some clarifying light to the rather saintly reputation that has been cultivated around Herbert, particularly by Izaak Walton, who wrote the first biography a few decades after the poet’s death.

Herbert may have become a parish clergyman, but he was born into a wealthy family – lords of Montgomery Castle on the Welsh borders, and part of the same branch of Herberts as the Earls of Pembroke.

His father died when he was young, and he moved with his mother to Oxford and then London. Bright and studious, he went on to Trinity College Cambridge, becoming a fellow there and rising to the prestigious role of ‘Orator’, which involved making official addresses and correspondence on behalf of the University.

Herbert’s journey to the priesthood was far from inevitable. A great career in public office might have come to pass, and when he finally became rector of Bemerton, just three years before he died of suspected tuberculosis, he had agonised over his calling for some time.

Ironically, he was never publicly known for poetry – in English at least. His Latin poetry was published, but the verse so widely loved today was kept to himself: revised and reflected on in private, refined to his particular style of lean precision.

Nonetheless, when Herbert’s poems were published soon after his death in a collection called The Temple, they became a huge success. He influenced a whole new generation of poets, and his words were soon being put to music by composers such as John Jenkins and Henry Lawes. Some made expressive solo songs, such as Purcell’s version of Longing, or John Wilson’s Content. More substantial is a choral verse anthem by George Jeffreys which sets Easter, the same poem that opens the Five Mystical Songs.

What is interesting is that these early settings don’t seem nearly as concerned with Herbert’s most celebrated poems today. Among these is Love (III), better known by its first line ‘Love bade me welcome’. It exemplifies Herbert’s habit of finding religious metaphors in aspects of everyday domestic life – in this case, the hospitality culture he was raised in. Here’s the first stanza, and a beautifully simple choral setting by the New York composer David Hurd.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

Enthused by Drury’s marvellous book, I decided to take a drive to Bemerton and see St. Andrew’s church, where Herbert ministered. It’s a small and modest building. Across the road stands the rectory where he lived – a much grander structure with grounds along the river Nadder, a tranquil chalk stream that glides east towards Salisbury like a quiet prayer. 

St. Andrew’s Church and rectory, Bemerton.

Entering the church, I was pleased to find a stone carving of ‘Love bade me welcome’ at the door. There is also a nice stained-glass window of Herbert, memorialised beside his friend Nicholas Ferrar, who has earned the eternal gratitude of Herbert fans by ensuring The Temple’s posthumous publication.

It’s a pleasant place, but beyond these features there isn’t much to see. So I quickly went on to Salisbury cathedral, walking the half-hour route that Herbert must have known so well. As the well-kept front gardens of Bemerton gave way to a drab industrial estate, the great spire came into view – the tallest in the country. I soon arrived at the idyllic water meadows where the Nadder joins the Avon, a vantage point immortalised by John Constable. Today the same west front of the cathedral bears a statue of Herbert, dedicated in 2003.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, by John Constable. Wikimedia Commons.

Salisbury is a lovely city, and on such a beautiful May morning – young leaves glowing in spring sunlight, bluebells and cowslips crowding the verges – it was hard not to think of Herbert’s poem Vertue.

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die. 

Like The Call, the rhythmic pulse of that first line was set to a beautiful melody by Vaughan Williams. But Hubert Parry also composed a choral setting of Vertue with its own mellifluous charm.

There’s an interesting connection here too. As it happens, Parry married Elizabeth Maude Herbert, whose brother (another George) was the Earl of Pembroke. So Parry joined the same family tree as our poet, two centuries after he died.

The St. Andrew’s window depicts Herbert holding a violin, and without doubt music was hugely important in his life. He played lute and viols, and it’s said he sang his own settings of his verse, though no notation of them has survived. His was a golden age for music in England as well as literature, and he would have known it – during his childhood in London, the composers John Bull and William Byrd visited his home, and John Donne was a family friend.

What’s more, musical metaphors ring through his poems with remarkable abundance. One of the most striking occurs in Easter, which alludes to the ‘three parts vied and multiplied’ of the harmonic triad, and compares the sinews of the crucified Christ to lute strings.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or, since all musick is but three parts vied
And multiplied,
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

But poetry, of course, has its own inner music. Diane Kelsey McColley has described the way that Herbert’s apparently simple arrangements of words are precisely ‘tuned’ to create multiple resonances:

Linear arrangements of words form vertical consonances whose overtones, as well as fundamental meanings, are in tune […] not only do thematically related concepts and images form vertical chords, but also the partials or secondary meanings – puns, etymologies, allusions, and the like – are in tune as the partials of natural tuning are.

Most clearly of all, Herbert’s poetry celebrates the essential goodness of music. His Antiphon (I) joyfully exclaims ‘Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing’, which rounds off the Five Mystical Songs in rousing fashion. It has been set to several hymn tunes, and George Dyson gave it an appropriately sunny treatment in his Three Songs Of Praise. 

Much more contrasting to the Five Mystical Songs is Roxanna Panufnik’s imaginative setting of The Call. Whereas Vaughan Williams makes these words noble and affirming, Panufnik creates an atmosphere of sensual mystery, with harp arpeggios wafting up like clouds of incense.

The composer Judith Weir seems particularly drawn to Herbert – her several settings include a beautiful version of Vertue. But when Weir was commissioned to compose the opening piece for the 2011 BBC Proms, she chose three particular lines from the poem Man. 

The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head.

With the formidable musical forces of Janáček’s Glagolithic Mass at her disposal for the concert, Weir turned these quietly nocturnal lines into a grand public statement, with organ and brass blazing bright. Stars, Night, Music And Light anoints the world’s largest classical music festival, announcing a long summer of dazzling nights under the stars.

A very different kind of selective quotation appears in the sonorous choral piece Contrition by Ola Gjeilo. He sets the final line of Perseverance in his central section: ‘Thou art my rock, thou art my rest’, and repeats it meditatively, a deeply felt mantra.

Herbert’s short life was marked by frequent poor health, and there is something moving in the fact that the late John Tavener turned to this poet after a period of illness in his final years. The Three Hymns Of George Herbert incorporates his earlier choral setting of Love (III), but he expands the forces, calling for a ‘large, resonant acoustic’, with a choir and string orchestra offset by an ‘echo choir’ and string quartet at a distance. Bells and gongs sound from a gallery above.

The use of this spatial arrangement becomes apparent in the first choice of hymn: Herbert’s ‘echo poem’ Heaven, which cleverly repeats the last syllable of each line as a new answering word to its preceding question.

A commercial recording of the Three Hymns is yet to be made, but the 2013 world premiere can be heard below. Herbert’s words traverse the far spaces of Washington Cathedral, with all the time-stopping stasis that Tavener does so well. The temple becomes an instrument. Its every corner sings. How wonderful it would be to hear this work under the great vaulted ceiling of Salisbury, while Herbert’s statue gazes west, out across the water meadows to his tiny church in Bemerton.

The antiphonal effects of the music reverberate just as Herbert’s poetry, locked away during his lifetime, has echoed down the centuries since his death. These words, rich in their musicality, remain fertile ground for inspiration.

Salisbury Cathedral seen from the west.

Talks and concerts related to Herbert’s life and work continue to be held in the Salisbury area. But the story of Bemerton has one especially pleasing literary and musical epilogue.

The novelist Vikram Seth, author of An Equal Music among other works, has been an admirer of Herbert since his youth. When he heard that the old rectory was going up for sale, he made a visit, and was so taken by the place that he decided to buy it in 2003. 

After the purchase Seth wrote Shared Ground: a series of poems in homage to Herbert, formally modelled on his favourite examples. These were set for voices by the composer Alec Roth. In his note to the Hyperion recording of the piece, Seth wrote about his experience of inhabiting Herbert’s physical space, much as he had inhabited his poetic forms:

At the beginning I felt his presence hourly, both within the house and outside. As time passed, I began to think of it as being somewhat more my own, but still, indefinably, shared.

A small picture of Herbert inside St. Andrew’s church.

Of these poems, Host is a response to Love (III). Here Seth creates a dialogue between himself and the location in which he felt so strangely welcomed. Roth sets it to alternating tenor solo and chorus. Both poems can be read here, but Seth’s opening stanza is below.

I heard it was for sale and thought I’d go
To see the old house where
He lived three years, and died. How could I know
Its stones, its trees, its air,
The stream, the small church, the dark rain would say:
“You’ve come; you’ve seen; now stay”.

But Roth adds something else to Host. At its close, the choir sing a few more lines which, according to Walton, were once inscribed in the hall of the rectory, marking the completion of repairs during Herbert’s tenure. The little poem no longer remains, but it was titled To My Successor.

If thou chance for to find
A new House to thy mind,
And built without thy Cost:
Be good to the Poor,
As God gives thee store,
And then my Labour’s not lost.

These words was also set for choir by James MacMillan, to be sung at the enthronement of Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. Several years later, Williams visited St. Andrew’s for a festival about Bemerton’s famous priest. A poet himself and a long-standing admirer of Herbert, he blessed the welcoming stone at the church door.

It seems that Herbert has many successors, of different sorts. And it’s surely no bad thing that I discovered the works of this fascinating man through the music of Vaughan Williams, however hard it may be to disrobe his verse from that melodic clothing.

For Herbert, music ran not only through his poetry, but his whole life. So it is deeply fitting that this particular entrance bade me welcome to his private world. What is clear is that Herbert’s legacy resounds in singing notes as much as it lives on in printed words. ‘Such a Way, as gives us breath’.   

‘Music At Midnight: The Life And Poetry Of George Herbert’ is available from Penguin. ‘Poetry And Music In Seventeenth-Century England’ is available from Cambridge University Press.

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The Magus

Prospero Commanding Ariel, by John White Abbott. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

John Fowles’s novel The Magus tells the story of Nicholas Urfe, a young graduate who takes up a post teaching English on a small Greek island. There he falls under the influence of an older man, Maurice Conchis, who seems to be a figure of considerable wealth, learning and charm. This mysterious character slowly draws Urfe into a game of escalating trickery, in which the boundaries of reality and illusion are increasingly tested.

Locked inside Urfe’s first-person narrative, we never fully understand what is happening to him, and the puzzles of Conchis grow more elaborate and sinister. As he digs down to discover the answers, the mysteries only deepen. 

I was left reeling by The Magus – it is a riveting and dazzling piece of storytelling. Its title refers to a Tarot card figure, also known as ‘The Magician’. And like the sibling words of ‘wizard’ or ‘sorcerer’, any figure who is able to bypass the laws of nature always has an appeal. Just look at the the Harry Potter series, which is arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of my lifetime.

In a sense music is inherently ‘magical’ – it is invisible, and its powers over us defy easy explanation. It has magical associations in some of our oldest stories: Orpheus with his lyre could charm even the rocks and trees with his song. The Pied Piper of Hamelin put music to the use of service, then vengeance. 

The Pied Piper Mural by Maxfield Parrish. Picture by Plum Leaves, shared under Creative Commons license. Cropped.

In the same vein, a story from Finnish myth inspired Thea Musgrave’s orchestral work Song Of The Enchanter. It refers to an episode from The Kalevala, where ‘Väinämöinen, the hero-God, has fashioned a magical five-stringed instrument from the bones of a giant pike. Orpheus-like, he plays upon it and enchants the people’.

Musgrave’s piece was commissioned to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sibelius. And among its bubbling woodwind textures, there emerges unmistakeable fragments of the ‘swan’ theme from his fifth symphony. It is clear that Musgrave’s ‘enchanter’ here is not only the one of myth. 

For a long time, magic has drawn on ancient and esoteric themes. In the Greek-speaking Classical world, the ‘Magi’ were known as priests of Zoroastrianism, a very old religion which originated in Iran with its founding figure Zoroaster. And it is through Greek writings about the Magi that our word ‘magic’ derives. So the concept itself comes not only with a dusty coating of old age, but also the musky scent of Orientalism – the projection of mysterious qualities onto an exotic ‘Other’. 

Etymology aside, the fanciful occult associations of Zoroaster and the Magi had a remarkably long life in the European imagination. And this is particularly apparent in an art form that loves exotic settings and mysterious antiquity as much as any other – Opera.

In Handel’s Orlando, the wizard ‘Zoroastro’ makes predictions from the stars, and uses magic to save the warrior hero from his own madness. Meanwhile, Rameau’s Zoroastre puts him in the title role, and he undergoes a magic initiation ritual to defeat an evil sorcerer. 

During a carnival in Vienna, the young Mozart once dressed up as an Oriental philosopher and handed out riddles titled ‘Excerpts From The Fragments of Zoroaster’. His opera The Magic Flute features a High Priest with the suspiciously familiar name ‘Sarastro’, who puts the Prince Tamino through initiation rites at his temple.

A century later, this tradition continued in Massenet’s Le Mage. His ‘Zarastre’ is a Persian General who goes to a sacred mountain to become a Magus. Laurent Campellone has argued that Le Mage was part of a renewed ‘vogue’ for Zoroaster sparked by Friedrich Nietzsche. His work Thus Spake Zarathustra reimagined the ancient figure not as a magician, but as a ‘new’ prophet who could propound his philosophy, one of mankind moving away from its old religious morality and towards the ‘Superman’. (In doing so, he prompted one of the most famous openings in all of orchestral music).

Zoroaster’s operatic roles may be Orientalist escapism, but even Nietzsche’s reinvention of him shows how ideas of the ancient, obscure and exotic can be a signpost to another realm of possibility. A recurring theme in stories of magic is the sudden discovery of a new depth to reality. And anything that is old, shadowy, or mysterious holds potential for things which have long lain hidden, if only you know where to look, which magic words to utter.

A Harry Potter fan at the Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station, London. Photograph by Nelo Hotsuma, Wikimedia Commons.

Harry Potter fans may be interested to know that before composing The Magic Flute, Mozart worked on a collaborative opera called The Philosopher’s Stone. Fantasy stories often draw on ideas that were once realms for serious study – in this case, Alchemy. And ‘Natural Magic’ was a term once used for demonstrating the marvellous behaviours of nature, of which music could form a part, with its intriguing phenomena such as sympathetic vibration.

In the late 16th century, a chapbook circulated with stories of one extraordinary Renaissance magician. Johann Faustus had allegedly practiced the ‘black’ magic of Necromancy – communication with the dead. It seems this was loosely based on a real figure, but in any case, the legend of ‘Faust’ was born. Two centuries later, Goethe sparked a huge revival of interest in Faust with his epic version of the tale, which went on to be enormously influential across arts and culture. It elicited a horde of musical responses. 

Unlike the reimagined ‘Zoroaster’, Faust is home-grown. His legend warns us of the lust for knowledge and power and its potential to corrupt – the ‘Faustian Pact’ with the demonic Mephistopheles shows us there’s a catch.

A woodcut illustrating Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus, a dramatisation of the Faust legend.

Musgrave’s composer-enchanter also has a sinister cousin here, in the Faustian virtuoso. The violinist Paganini was renowned for his seemingly diabolical skills, an idea later echoed in the ‘Crossroads’ legend of blues musician Robert Johnson. And that great nineteenth-century wizard of the piano, Franz Liszt, was certainly taken with the demonic aspects of Faust – he composed four macabre dances, the Mephisto Waltzes, alongside a huge symphonic setting of the story.

As long as music has magical qualities, those who excel at making it will take on the appearance of magicians. Not only is musical talent inherently intangible, but the necessary years of hard work are also hidden from the stage. 

‘The Modern Orpheus’ – an 1831 bulletin advertising a performance by Paganini. Wikimedia Commons.

But there is also that other magic; one immediately spotted, immensely powerful, but very hard to explain. It’s the x-factor of presence, charisma – something that can apply to any field of performance.

The Canadian composer Vincent Ho speaks in such terms of the percussionist Evelyn Glennie. ‘She has the uncanny ability to draw the audience into a magical world and take us on wondrous journeys that are beyond material existence’. Using ideas of those charismatic figures who claim to access the world of spirits, his percussion concerto The Shaman was composed for her.

The Faust legend conjured up a huge amount of music, but another work by Goethe also led to a famous piece on magical themes. In a similar way, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gives a warning about over-stretching our desire for power. In his master’s absence, the apprentice sorcerer casts spells which quickly spiral out of control. The orchestral scherzo on this tale by Paul Dukas was brought to life for countless children by Mickey Mouse, when it was animated for Disney’s film Fantasia. 

It’s sometimes said that ‘three is a magic number’, and much like the Mephisto Waltzes, Dukas uses a metre grouped in threes. This gives his bassoon theme a playfully bouncing quality, its magic characterised as dancing mischief (in fact, Dukas uses a 9/8 time signature, so three lots of three).

The use of a ‘compound’ metre is shared in the penultimate movement of Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, titled Uranus, The Magician. But the figure that Holst creates here is no apprentice – this music is full of dashing verve and swaggering confidence. At its thrilling climax, an organ glissando rushes upwards like a firework. 

Raymond Head has described how Holst moved in an artistic milieu with esoteric interests. He suggests that The Planets was likely influenced by a 1912 book called The Art Of Synthesis by astrologer Alan Leo. To Leo, the planet Uranus was ‘the awakener […] it shows people that there is more to living than what can just be seen or touched’, just as a magician ‘invokes and manipulates unseen elemental forces’.

Head also notes that the ominous brass notes that open the movement spell out G, S, A, H in German notation, which can help us to form ‘GuStAv Holst’. Whether this was an intentional cipher or not, Holst certainly revels in his powers with this score. And the angular prominence of the motif gives it a character of mysterious significance – a musical ‘Abracadabra’.

You could say there is something of a shared ‘magic formula’ among these works by Dukas and Holst, along with the similarly supernatural music in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre and Berlioz’s Witches’ Sabbath. It seems to be varying mixtures of a few features: a dancing metre grouped in threes, bright orchestral colours, quite often a minor key, and sinuous and/or angular melodic shapes. 

Much like fantasy literature, these are the sorts of pieces that form an enchanting gateway for young people discovering a larger art form, yet they remain popular with adults too. It seems only appropriate that many of the same features can be found in Hedwig’s Theme from John Williams’s superb score for the Harry Potter films.

The Magus very cleverly explores different means of creating illusion and suspending disbelief. Throughout the book, Conchis takes on various guises which play on this idea – hypnotist, psychiatrist, theatre director, film producer.

At first Urfe is intrigued by this wealthy eccentric, but he soon becomes obsessed with unravelling his mysteries. It is a dilemma familiar even from a simple card trick – do we want to understand the mechanics, or just enjoy the magic? Do we want the fearsome Wizard of Oz, or the small man revealed?

Perhaps more than any other composer, Wagner went to unusual lengths in the pursuit of grand illusion. His operas transport us with their huge scale, legendary themes, and intoxicating music. But in overseeing the construction of the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, Wagner created a performance space dedicated to his ideal of the deep artistic experience. Particularly ingenious is its pit that completely conceals the orchestra from the audience. In the words of Tom Service, ‘the music seeps like sonorous perfume from the invisible depths’. 

Such innovations notwithstanding, the hidden power lying in Wagner’s scores had enormous influence on later composers. Debussy marvelled at passages in Parsifal which sounded as if they were ‘lit from within’. And in fact, it seems that wherever there is magic, there is also a source of mesmerising light. It is reflected in the tendency to use bright and silvery musical sounds for magical themes – Hedwig’s celesta, Mozart’s flute and bells.

Projection from a Laterna Magica, sourced from Breve Storia del Cinema.

Lighting is an essential craft in theatre, and so too in film. The ‘Magic Lantern’ was an early projection device, some versions of which could produce the illusion of moving images. The master filmmaker Ingmar Bergman gave his autobiography the same title, and his descriptions of different kinds of light in the book were a source of fascination for the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Her Laterna Magica is a spookily atmospheric score, in which Bergman’s names for light are recited in softly sinister tones by members of the orchestra.

The craft of storytelling can certainly be enhanced by technology. But the perennial popularity of the novel shows that words alone can cast their own spell. In The Magus, the greatest power Conchis seems to have is telling stories – stories whose truth is difficult to ascertain, but which he weaves at length seductively, improvising and adapting as he goes.

This extra layer of storytelling within the book takes us deeper into its world. At the same time, it gives us an embedded model of the novel itself, hinting at its artifice. Just as with Holst’s apparent cipher, Fowles knows that he is the real Magus. The tricks Conchis pulls on Urfe are his own tricks on us. 

Perhaps it is no surprise that this idea of embedded storytelling has led to one of the most enchanting scores in the orchestral repertoire. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is based on the Arabian Nights, a legend which tells us of the power of stories to bewitch and sway human hearts. And his much-loved music matches that power triumphantly.

Illustration from ‘Stories From The Arabian Nights’ (1911). Source here.

The use of such narrative games also appealed to Shakespeare, as can be seen in his play-within-a-play device. The Magus makes knowing allusions to Prospero in The Tempest, the marooned wizard who, aside from other magical acts, calls up spirits to perform a masque for the lovers Miranda and Ferdinand.

Sibelius composed incidental music for The Tempest, and according to musicologist Erik Tawaststjerna, Prospero likely held significance for the Finnish enchanter, as ‘a symbol of the creative man’. His musical interlude for the magician features a glowing centre of woodwind and brass timbres, dramatically offset by a grave hymn for monochrome strings.

But it seems probable that it was not only Sibelius who saw himself in Prospero. Once his masque is over, our magician makes a celebrated speech, one which is commonly interpreted as touching on Shakespeare’s own retirement from theatre – his ‘globe’.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

In these immortal lines, Shakespeare extends the metaphor of Prospero’s illusion a step further. Life itself is a dream, the world its stage. In doing so, he alludes to a bigger truth: that stories are how we deal with the biggest, most fundamental questions of existence. Whether it is through the arts, religion, or science, we all weave tales which help secure our understanding of the world, and our tiny place within it. Anyone who can suspend our disbelief is a Magus, of one kind or another.

Detail from The School of Athens by Raphael, showing ‘Zoroaster’.

At the same time, these stories also reflect back on ourselves and our culture. We can note how many wizards and magicians have historically been male embodiments of authority and power. The history of witches, on the other hand, reveals how the prospect of women having hidden knowledge is often treated as far less welcome.

But times change. The fact that the more gender-inclusive halls of Hogwarts have now inspired a generation suggests that our ideas of magic will continue to adapt, as we do. And all the while, the phantom figures of Faustus and Zoroaster can remind us that stories are, in any case, a slippery form of sorcery. Much like the poor apprentice’s spell, they quickly take on a life of their own.

Part of Prospero’s speech was set to music by Vaughan Williams in his Three Shakespeare Songs for choir. Written towards the end of his career, he sets out in notes ‘the baseless fabric’ of Shakespeare’s late vision, and does so with chords of fragile magnificence. This is music that captures all the transient beauty of the magician’s power, in two minutes of pure magic.

At the very last chord, there is an inspired final trick. Halfway through the word ‘sleep’, the harmony unexpectedly slips from major to minor. It’s just a small touch – a parting glance. But it speaks of something that lies beyond our understanding. 

‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on’. However far down we go, the mystery only deepens. The Magus is always one step ahead.

John Fowles’s novel The Magus is available from Penguin.

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Dreams Of Mahler

Gustav Mahler photographed by Moritz Nähr, cropped from source.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

In 2010, Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall featured a series of concerts performing all ten symphonies by Gustav Mahler, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of his birth. Each concert also featured a new work commissioned to sit alongside the symphonies, plus another for Das Lied Von Der Erde, from eleven composers.

The results included a wide variety of approaches – from a short choral piece, to an orchestral arrangement of a Schubert song, to the seventh symphony of David Matthews, accompanying Mahler’s of the same number.

Edward Gregson is a composer and (now retired) academic, born in Sunderland in 1945. He took on the task to introduce Mahler’s sixth symphony, an immense and turbulent work of some 80-plus minutes. His tone poem Dream Song is one of the more substantial Manchester commissions, and is perhaps the one which most directly confronts its Mahlerian pairing. As he explains:

My approach in tackling this commission was to ‘invade’ Mahler’s world of musical ideas […] to portray a half-remembered landscape of some of the themes and motives from his Sixth Symphony, fragmented (or deconstructed) as if in a dream […] 

Mahler’s sixth is a vast emotional canvas, but it has a reputation as a ‘tragic’ symphony, made clear from the ominous march of its opening, through to the violent ‘hammer blows’ of its finale.

Gregson’s decision to reconfigure ideas from this particular work is appropriate, because the story of Mahler’s sixth is marked by questions of orderings, timings – even claims of premonition. It is a symphony that has never fully settled its version of events. Mahler made revisions after an unsatisfactory premiere, and consequently there is a lasting dispute over the correct sequence of the two inner movements.

A further mystery lies in its tragic character, as it was composed during the seemingly happy early years of Mahler’s marriage to his wife Alma, when their second daughter Anna was born. Mahler fostered intrigue himself, writing that his sixth presented ‘riddles’, the solution to which ‘only a generation will dare to apply itself which has previously absorbed and digested my first five symphonies’.

Alma went on to claim that this work anticipated later personal crises, most tragically the death of their first daughter Maria in 1907. It was Alma too who identified a passionately leaping violin theme, introduced as a second subject of the first movement, as representing herself.

The musicologist Hans F. Redlich went so far as to speculate that this music expressed ‘instinctive forebodings’ of the turmoil that would rock Europe through the new century, beginning shortly after Mahler’s death with the First World War.

If suggestions of prophecy seem fanciful, less contentious is that the symphony evokes the past. The trio section of the scherzo movement is marked Altväterisch – ‘old-fashioned’. At other points off-stage cowbells are heard, as if the intrusion of a bucolic memory. This all aligns with the popular idea of Mahler’s famous attributed comment – that a symphony should be ‘like the world, it must embrace everything’.

It may sound like an ambitious task to compress such a vast work into a tone poem, but Gregson avoids trying to encapsulate it all in his 20-minute span. His ‘parallel musical world’ selects various elements, and flips the tragic narrative to culminate in a Liebeslied – or ‘love song’ – which is his own variation on the ‘Alma’ theme.

The closest thing to a hammer blow is the very first chord, a nightmarish dissonance loud enough to wake anyone with a start. But what quickly emerges is a more probing and mysterious scene. Mahler’s so-called ‘fate’ motif – a major triad darkening to the minor – is heard in reverse. Minor becomes major, but it is a sonic stretching that seems to lead us nowhere.

The unfolding narrative gives us various signposts from the symphony – Mahler geeks can peruse Gregson’s guide – but this is no rehashing. His term ‘half-remembered’ is key: in the confusion of this dream, ideas are altered, updated, and personalised.

As a concert opener, Dream Song foregrounds Mahler’s sixth in the strangely transfigured light of its own remembering. The first four notes of the ‘Alma’ theme, an upward-sweeping gesture, become a leitmotif that gives coherence to the work, while portending the tragedy to follow.

Part of what makes the music so compelling is the imaginative orchestration, particularly in its translucent and ghostly passages. The central section is a menacing scherzo, but with some serenely pastoral music at its heart – Gregson’s own take on the Altväterisch trio. Then in a witty touch, we hear a glimmer of steel drums: cowbells translated from Alpine pastures to the streets of multicultural Britain.

When we finally reach the Liebeslied, it is a singing string melody complete with authentic late-romantic harmony. We could be fully in Mahler’s world, but the theme then transfers to a brass choir, reminiscent of Gregson’s northern origins and his large body of work for brass band. Bitonal scales start to distort the harmony, the dream-vision warps.

In the composer’s words, the work ends ‘peacefully, albeit bittersweet’. It comes to rest on a quiet E major chord, but the ‘Alma’ motif snakes over it on muted violins, diminished to a final questioning B-flat. Dream Song ends as it starts – with a strange ambivalence.

***

The Manchester Mahler commissions were arranged for an anniversary year, but Mahler’s symphonies require no such occasion. Last year for example, the BBC Proms included no fewer than five of them, in what was just a regular season.

I’ve long wondered when the trend for endless Mahler will subside, his music start to become too familiar. But as the LSO live-streamed a recent performance of his second symphony, my Twitter timeline filled up with rapturous responses of the kind that few composers, living or dead, seem able to generate.

Mahler’s second is known as ‘The Resurrection’ – but it seems that he himself has been resurrected. I would venture to say that reports of his death in 1911 have been greatly exaggerated. He is, in effect, a leading orchestral composer of our time. While he has his detractors, he is also given the frequent performances, along with the buzz and gushing plaudits that you would expect – in an ideal world at least – to be conferred on a composer writing the music of our moment.

In 2016, I heard Bernard Haitink conduct his third symphony at the Proms. It is a gargantuan piece. But standing in the packed Albert Hall arena, the audience’s collective faith was palpable. The extreme demands of this music – including a boy’s choir sitting in silence for most of its 100-minute duration – was completely normalised.

The evening’s triumph was a foregone conclusion. And I certainly enjoyed the experience – if nothing else, Mahler understood that if you give people a sublime ending they will go home on a high, no matter how long you take to get there.

But there is something more than just beautiful music going on here. There is an aesthetic of monumentality, something the Manchester Mahler brochure gives away in its first sentence:

Mahler’s symphonies are considered the greatest pinnacle of the symphonic repertoire, an unparalleled challenge for even the greatest symphony orchestras of today.

It is without doubt that Mahler serves as a kind of showcase composer for orchestral music – and by extension, classical composition itself. He exemplifies the lengths to which it can be put, the range it can cover, its ability to ‘embrace everything’. To a sometimes hypochondriac classical music culture, Mahler reassures with an emotionally powerful form of monumentality.

The metaphor of a ‘greatest pinnacle’ is also telling, because it uncritically replicates the masculine rhetoric – size, strength, challenge – that is bound up in the format of the symphony orchestra itself, as a large ensemble commanded by a traditionally male authority figure.

In the years since the 2010 Manchester season, conversations around representing women and non-white voices in concert repertoire have advanced significantly. It seems as if the classical music world is finally waking from its own long dream of complacency. Concert programming is slow to catch up, but it is promising that festivals such as the Proms have now pledged to bring their commissioning of new works to a 50:50 gender ratio by 2022.

By comparison, consider that only one of the eleven Manchester works was composed by a woman – the short, broodingly dissonant Mosaic by Bushra El-Turk. There were more members of the Matthews family represented that year, through brothers Colin and David.

And if Alma Mahler lies at the heart of Mahler’s sixth symphony, it is important to remember that she was also a composer herself, as well as a very complex character. But a key fact of their relationship, less prominent in concert marketing material, is that Gustav insisted Alma give up composing as a condition of their marriage, in order to support him.

Alma Mahler c. 1905-6, with daughters Maria (left), who died in 1907, and Anna, right. Unknown photographer. Cropped from source.

It is a jarring fact, and one that should inform our approach to Mahler’s all-embracing ideal. Can we completely separate his desire to express himself at such vast scale from his selfish suppression of his wife’s creativity? I don’t think we can. They share a cultural connection of that time, a male entitlement that underpins his monumental aesthetic – that the man’s genius, ascending his pinnacle, must be the hero.

So here is the real tragedy of the sixth symphony, whatever its supposed riddles might be. In the seemingly happy early years of their marriage, Alma would find herself as a theme in her husband’s music, when she might have been composing her own.

Now, I don’t underestimate the difficulty of programming unfamiliar works, while having to negotiate the commercial reality of box office receipts. But if we can at least aspire towards more diverse concert programming, we can see that some composers would necessarily have to be heard less often than at present to achieve that.

Our modern Mahler addiction would be a prime candidate for curtailment, firstly because a concert culture truly engaged with diverse perspectives simply wouldn’t be able to consign so many hours to these enormous symphonies. There would be too many other voices needing some of that space. But secondly, we might become more critically aware of what this monumentality represents.

We live in a time when Mahler’s works are being ‘absorbed and digested’ to an extent he might never have imagined. But to a generation that demands a menu more representative of the 21st century, his music – heard less frequently in a more varied context – might start to have some of its strangeness rightfully restored.

It would be no less powerful of course; no less beautiful, no less moving. But in a truly diverse repertoire, his idea to ‘embrace everything’ might seem a little presumptuous. His means and demands might appear somewhat inflated. In the passion of the ‘Alma’ theme we might hear the silent music of the numberless women who were historically pressured away from their artistic potential.

Much like the final chord of Dream Song, this music might leave us with a quiet note, one that lingers dissonantly. A 21st-century sense of complicated truth. For all his wonderful qualities, Mahler would simply be revealed more clearly for what he is – a man not quite of our time.

You could say, a little Altväterisch.

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Tippett: A Composer For Our Time?

Antarctic Ice, by Tanya Patrick of CSIRO. Shared under Creative Commons, source here.

           By Will Frampton

There is a telling scene in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys in which ‘the boys’ are being prepared for their Oxbridge interviews. On the subject of music one boy offers his love of Mozart, but is urged to reference someone ‘more off the beaten track. Tippett or Bruckner.’  Tippett may be considered off the beaten track, but the ideas and problems that stimulated his music are perhaps more than ever relevant for a contemporary audience.

During his lifetime Sir Michael Tippett was considered one of Britain’s leading composers, however since his death in 1998 his vast output, despite a cult following, has largely been overlooked for concert programs and radio playlists. Tippett was a composer of ideas about the world, he himself stated that his central preoccupation was ‘the question of what sort of world we live in and how we may behave in it’.

Tippett’s music is brimming with energy and ebullience, seemingly celebrating the challenge of humanity to bring together darkness and light. It engages with questions of war, sexuality, race, and class in ways that are highly relevant in today’s world of heightened political and social tensions.

***

Michael Tippett was born on January 2nd 1905 to middle class but socially progressive parents. His extended family had a history of involvement in music, culture, and politics. Soon after leaving the Royal College of Music Tippett began to see the social benefits of music making. He worked in summer camps near mining villages, conducted an orchestra for unemployed musicians, and taught at London’s Morley College, which has long been associated with educating the underprivileged.

While Tippett was directly associated with a handful of left-wing political groups for a brief period in the 1930s, he gradually came to view political beliefs as ‘manifestations of deeper human impulses’.  He thus began to prioritise the attainment of psychological balance over political activism – and believed this balance could best be achieved through music making.

It was perhaps his faith in the social benefits of music more than any other factor that led Tippett to serve a prison sentence for his pacifist beliefs during World War Two. Upon registering as a conscientious objector, the composer was instructed to undertake manual labour work. He refused this ‘because of his conviction that music was the field in which he could best serve the community’.

Therefore in 1943 he was sentenced to three months imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. Years later when Tippett was being awarded a CBE his mother, who as a Suffragette had also undergone a brief period of incarceration, is reported to have said that her son’s imprisonment was the proudest she had ever been of him.

Around this time Tippett was completing his first mature works as a composer. The Concerto for Double String Orchestra of 1939 is the work of a man assuredly speaking in his own musical voice. Showing off a romantic and melodic style, the work features Tippett’s distinctive quirky rhythms and dashing string writing. But before serving his sentence Tippett finished what is considered to be his first major work. Started just two days after the outbreak of the Second World War, the oratorio A Child of Our Time was written at great speed in fear that the war would prevent its completion.

Inspiration for the oratorio’s subject matter was found in the Kristallnacht (‘Night of the Broken Glass’) pogrom against Jews throughout Germany. Tippett created a dramatic and narrative structure informed by Baroque models. The composer was especially fascinated by the tripartite structure of Handel’s Messiah in which the first part is preparation and prophecy, the second presents the substance of the story, and the third is a meditation on the events previously depicted.

He wanted to combine this with the more unifying form of Bach’s Lutheran Passions which are structured around narrational recitatives, descriptive choruses, contemplative arias, and congregational hymns. However, wishing to express the turmoil of the mid-20th century, Tippett struggled to find a unifying music that could be used in place of the congregational hymn.

A moment of inspiration was found when listening to a performance of black American spirituals on the radio. He realised that in Europe, and perhaps beyond, these would hold no ‘expressional barriers’. A Child of Our Time uses five spirituals which subvert the Lutheran form by transforming these moments of congregation into moments of climax.

Tippett’s use of these spirituals have led some to argue that Tippett was as a cultural appropriator; a white man making use of songs composed out of black suffering. But his interest in race relations, expressed particularly in later operas The Knot Garden and The Ice Break, suggests he was choosing music which he felt expressed a deep humanity and exposed the troubles of the age beyond the war in Europe.

A Child of Our Time opens with the declamation ‘The world turns on its dark side. It is winter,’ sung by the choir over chromatically shifting harmonies which forge the uneasy landscape upon which the drama will unfold. The disquiet of this opening gives way to a terrifying depiction of the violence of war and is best illustrated by the chorus ‘The Terror’. The words ‘Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!’ are stabbed out across the choir over frantically rushing string lines.

Despite the darkness of the subject, Tippett insists upon humanity’s ability to find light. Before the final chorus a series of soloists sing:

I would know my shadow and my light,
So shall I at last be whole.
Then courage, brother, dare the grave passage.
Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope.
The moving waters renew the earth.
It is spring.

One by one each of the four-part choir joins in, before a final hope-filled spiritual ends the work. A Child of our Time uses musical form from ‘high’ art, and an element that would typically be considered ‘low’ art to articulate the struggles of uniting divided selves and divided communities. Beyond this, the work has a strong message that it is everyone’s responsibility to engage with and highlight the oppression or degradation of peoples, even when it is the suffering of people of a different race, gender or creed to our own.

Much of Tippett’s concern with the uniting of divided elements came from an interest in psychology which had been deepening since his student days. In particular Tippett was an admirer of Carl Jung and underwent analysis and self-analysis in the late 1930s. In Jungian psychology there is a theory called ‘the opposites’ which Frieda Fordham explains:

The greater tension between the pairs of opposites the greater the energy; without opposition there is no manifest energy […] The opposites have a regulating function […] and when one extreme is reached libido passes over into its opposite.

In essence Jung’s theory is that we all consist of opposites but it is only when these opposites interact and unite that energy and positivity is created. It is in this theory that we find the root of Tippett’s desire to unite divided elements. If fear of the unknown ‘other’ or ‘opposite’ generates divisions in society then it is only by interacting and ultimately uniting with the other that this fear, and the divisions it creates, can be overcome.

In the late 2010s, where political developments have thrown into sharp relief the divisions in society, and in particular the scepticism over the progress of globalisation, Tippett’s message would be to embrace the extraordinary outcomes that can only be achieved when people are united. A Child of our Time set in motion themes and techniques that, in different combinations and guises, would provide the bedrock for all of Tippett’s work as a composer.

***

Tippett wrote his own libretto for each of his operas, at times using source material as diverse as myth, literature, and soap opera. For The Knot Garden and The Ice Break he worked in entirely fictionalised worlds. Not only are these operas deeply engaged in their own time but viewed by a contemporary audience they are often disturbingly prescient for the twenty-first century.

The principle idea of The Knot Garden was to present a series of characters each with equal importance. The seven characters shift between established relationships into new pairings of twos or threes. If this opera were written today it would almost certainly be criticised for excessive political correctness – Tippett gave equal voice to all of contemporary society and the libretto is explicit that the cast includes straight, gay (or seemingly bi-sexual), white, black, latino, and disabled and disfigured characters.

In the mid-1960s Tippett was highlighting issues of diversity which are still in the process of becoming part of mainstream thought. He took the ideas of The Knot Garden further in 1977’s The Ice Break which is about ‘contemporary difficulties of communication at various levels’ and in particular deals with reconciling the individual from the stereotype.

During the short introduction, brass chords – which encapsulate the sense of ice breaking – dramatically crescendo out of a texture of low strings line. The drama commences in an airport lounge, and after a white character attacks a black Olympian, a race riot takes place. The stage is flooded with a mass chorus. The characters, even those once friends, merge into their respective mobs of black and white.

The music is always cold with the crescendoing brass chords a constant reminder of the fragility of the drama’s landscape. The opera raises many issues, but while its ending hints at Tippett’s theme of uniting opposites, it remains distinctly ‘answerless’. The libretto finishes with a quote from Goethe:

Yet you will always be brought forth again […] and likewise be maimed, wounded afresh, from within or without.   

While Tippett’s usual dark/light dialectic exists it is for the first time not from the point of view of hope. Like the image of the ice breaking, all human relations are rebuilt only to be destroyed again.

Of all the ideas and problems Tippett’s music deals with, those raised in The Ice Break are sadly still most relevant, as events such as the far-right rally in Charlottesville show. For that reason, not to mention its guaranteed casting for black singers, it is dispiriting that it took 38 years for its one-off 2015 revival in Birmingham.

***

Tippett died on January 8th 1998 at the age of 93. Through his career flowered four symphonies, five string quartets, five operas, and numerous other chamber, orchestral, and vocal pieces. And yet his music never had an entirely comfortable place in British culture. He once said that when he made a dramatic change his style with his second opera King Priam it was met with pleas by critics for him to return to his previous melodic style, which they had then chastised for being old fashioned.

His music raises many troublesome questions but the answer is almost certainly that unity is always the only way forward. The constant message throughout his work is that darkness and opposition can only be conquered by uniting them with brightness and progression. To recall a refrain from A Child of our Time, ‘I shall know my shadow from my light, so shall I at last be whole’.

In the world of radical and reactionary politics and a time when globalisation is met with nationalism Tippett’s message, humble as it may be, is more important than ever. In the words of the composer himself, ‘music is a performance and needs an audience’. But are we prepared to listen?

Will Frampton is a composer, conductor, and writer on music. They are currently undertaking a PhD in composition at the University of Manchester. Will’s works, often noted for their expressive and lyrical quality, are performed regularly including by ensembles such as the orchestra of Opera North, Allegri Quartet, Ligeti Quartet, and Berkeley Ensemble. For more info please visit www.willframpton.co.uk

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In Present Time

Russian icon of the Holy Wisdom of God, 17th century. Source from Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Time is the canvas on which music is written. A composer must decide how to use its space, and how to shape its perception – how to make it rush forward, slow it down, or suspend it completely.

A composer might also be interested in a larger sense of time. The age in which they live, the baggage of its past, its hopes and fears for the future.

And some composers are concerned with the nature of time itself. It seemed an appropriate coincidence that I discovered Sofia Gubaidulina’s violin concerto In Tempus Praesens (‘In The Present Time’) around the recent New Year, when this topic is given extra symbolic significance.

I was drawn in by the compelling mysteriousness of the music. But its title also intrigued me. If this work is about the present time, why is it written in Latin, a language of antiquity?

In her programme note, Gubaidulina offers some clues to her thinking.

In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future. And only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience lasting present time.

We can understand that the ‘present’ here is not simply chronological, but a special kind of consciousness – of being present. Gubaidulina is well known for her works on religious and spiritual themes. Born in 1931 in the Soviet Tartar Republic, she developed an interest in religion at a very young age, at a time when Soviet Union policy was officially atheist.

Though a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, Gubaidulina is also the granddaughter of a Muslim Mullah, and Ivana Medić has noted an ‘idiosyncratic pantheistic synthesis’ of diverse religious influences in her output.

Her first violin concerto, Offertorium, helped to establish her name in the West in the 1980s. It took as its starting point the theme from Bach’s Musical Offering. And it is Bach too that underpins In Tempus Praesens, completed in 2007.

A documentary film about the composition, Sofia – Biography Of A Violin Concerto, gives insight into her craft, and her personality. Filmed in her mid-seventies, Gubaidulina has a certain grandmotherly kindliness, but her conviction in her methods is undisguised. She explains the importance of using both intellect and intuition. We see a plan for the piece’s structure, annotated with numbers taken from an analysis of Bach’s final chorale, combined with the Lucas sequence – a version of the Fibonacci sequence that is found in various guises throughout nature.

That there is mathematics underpinning the structure of In Tempus Praesens is not something a listener would notice – it is more the foundation to its architecture. But for a composer of such avowed spirituality, this esoteric method comes across as an act of faith in itself, like a divination tool. And the choice of Bach’s final chorale, written shortly before his death, is surely charged with an extra symbolism too – as a memento mori. 

We can also see a concern with the passing of time by looking at her orchestra. There are three Wagner tubas – a rare relic of the nineteenth century – and a harpsichord, emblematic of the Baroque. Then in the large percussion section looms an ancient presence: an immense gong, which marks out key points in the work with an earth-shattering roar.

But perhaps the masterstroke of her scoring is in a surprising absence. The violins – normally the orchestra’s largest cohort – have vanished completely. Both literally and sonically, the soloist stands apart.

The clues to this peculiar arrangement can be found in another coincidence, one with particular significance for the composer. Gubaidulina was commissioned to compose the concerto for the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, and she was struck by the shared root in their first names – Sophia, the Greek for ‘wisdom’.

The concept of Sophia as ‘Holy Wisdom’ has a long and complex history in Eastern Orthodox traditions, running right back through early Gnosticism to the Old Testament. In Russian iconography, Sophia is sometimes shown as an angel with wings, while other depictions illustrate a passage in the book of Proverbs: ‘wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars’.

Statue of Sophia, in Sofia, Bulgaria. The owl on her arm represents wisdom. Cropped from source by Mont-Joli, shared under Creative Commons License.

Drawing on this shared heritage embedded in their names, Gubaidulina decided to represent divine wisdom through the violin, its silvery and often mournful voice set against a larger ensemble – a society, perhaps – in which she is notably absent.

Part of my fascination with this score is how the orchestra is used in small pockets of colour, casting the solo line in strange shadows, and moments of visionary intensity. But then in the central section of the piece, this changes with frighteningly violent effect. The orchestra comes together and relentlessly pounds out a savage rhythmic figure, while the violin writhes and struggles against it.

In the documentary, an interviewer asks Gubaidulina about this passage. She explains that Sophia ‘appears in our reality with risks’, and that this episode is inspired by the fact that some philosophers have understood her as a whore, and someone who must be punished. In her programme note, she calls it a ‘ritual sacrifice’.

Besides a whore, Sophia has also been interpreted at various times as a bride, or a consort. If she carries a sexual aspect, then Gubaidulina seems to be revealing the danger attached to that in any culture that is built upon structures of male power – even a spiritual culture. This brutality can be heard both as an assault on divine wisdom by a savage society, but also as a reflection of male hostility to female sexual freedom.

Sophia’s sexual potential stands in obvious contrast to the more familiar embodiment of divine womanhood in Christianity – the Virgin Mary. But it is interesting how Sophia now flourishes in obscure corners of the internet, a perhaps more relatable icon who appeals to many with spiritual or even New Age interests. Among the more thoughtful blogs on the topic, Cynthia Avens makes the case that Sophia offers a better model of the Christian divine feminine, by expressing ‘the full range of her creative energies’, including sexual passion.

Sofia Gubaidulina in 1981, by Dmitri N. Smirnov. Cropped, shared under Creative Commons.

Gubaidulina appears in the West with a slightly exotic aura, a figure who not only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, but from a seemingly more spiritual world too. In an interview for her 80th birthday in 2011, she expressed dismay at the secularity of modern life: ‘people are becoming one-dimensional, since we are losing religion. This lost spirituality is dangerous for art.’

It’s fair to say these sorts of sentiments are not to everyone’s taste. But in the case of In Tempus Praesens, there is perhaps a more timely relevance that is worth exploring, one that lies in another chance connection. In 2007, the same year that this work was premiered, Apple launched the first model of the iPhone.

In the decade since, smartphone technology and social media have transformed our consciousness in ways we are still struggling to come to terms with. The addictive stimulation of constant connectivity has led many – even tech leaders themselves – to express unease about diminished concentration spans, feelings of anxiety, and disrupted sleeping patterns.

As something of a Twitter addict, I often find my attention divided between laptop, phone, and the TV or radio. The stream of updates and notifications can give a colour and pace to the experience of time, but leaves it with a shallower depth too. It is hard to know where to draw a line over the opportunities this technology gives us, and how best to maintain some mental perspective.

So when Gubaidulina said that in art we can experience a ‘lasting present time’, she was perhaps being unintentionally prophetic. In a world of connectivity exhaustion, it may be that the most valuable currency a composer can trade in is the experience of time itself.

To that end, I’ve recently been challenging myself to take time out to listen more deeply to music, without distractions. For a rich and complex work like In Tempus Praesens, the rewards are inarguable.

In the documentary, Guabidulina notes an important passage in the transition to the final episode of the piece. Having cruelly assaulted the violin in ritual sacrifice, the orchestra now unites with it, and all instruments come together to meet at a single pitch.

This unity, she explains, is a metaphor for Sophia herself. And perhaps in that brief moment of oneness there is a model for a better kind of listening too. As the score moves towards its triumphant close, the orchestra descends to a low growl while the violin soars to a transcendent high, fading to silence among an ethereal tinkling of chimes.

This strange and fascinating work seems to be reminding us of something important – that our attention is a powerful force.  If we dedicate it to music’s singular purpose, we can find our consciousness widened to new heights and depths. We can leave the experience of ordinary life, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of lasting present time.

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Tippett: A Composer In Love

Michael Tippett (right) with Wilf Franks in Spain in 1933. Reproduced here by kind permission of Caroline Ayerst.

       By Danyel Gilgan

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is to revive a Michael Tippett work which has not been performed for over 70 years. His Symphony in B-flat of 1933-4 will provide classical music lovers with a valuable insight into a rich but largely overlooked period of Tippett’s output. At this time in the composer’s life, his work was deeply influenced by an intense experience of falling in love.

Tippett’s two following compositions, the Robin Hood folk opera (1934) and String Quartet No.1 (1935), are characteristically diverse in nature but, in their own way, both give us great insight into the mind of this fascinating composer.

The former was written for, and performed by, a Yorkshire mining community that Tippett and other volunteers came to help as they struggled to survive during the Great Depression. The very nature of this work is a testament to the composer’s humanitarian instincts and to the compassionate outlook of a man who believed that music could make a positive contribution to our wider social consciousness.

The String Quartet No.1 is of an altogether different nature. Credited with being the piece in which the composer finally found his own unique musical idiom, the work is dedicated to Wilfred Franks, who Tippett worked alongside in Yorkshire. In his 1991 autobiography Tippett wrote the following:

Meeting with Wilf was the deepest, most shattering experience of falling in love: and I am quite convinced it was a major factor underlying the discovery of my own individual musical voice [….] all that love flowed out in the slow movement of my first string quartet, an unbroken span of lyrical music in which all four instruments sing ardently from start to finish.

This extraordinary statement begs the inevitable question: who was Wilf Franks? And what was it that the composer found so inspiring about a man who has up until now remained an enigma to the many music scholars and academics who have written about Sir Michael?

At this point, I must declare an interest. Wilf was my maternal grandfather. I have spent much of the last four years writing a biography about this dear relative, whose young life was something of a mystery even to his close family.

In a recent email, Meirion Bowen (Tippett’s biographer and partner in later life) explained to me something of the attraction.

Wilf certainly made a deep impact on Michael, for he seemed to represent a ‘free’ individual, unencumbered by social convention, standard politics and religion. Michael thought this quite wonderful. It was the exact opposite of what Michael himself had experienced as a child of middle class parents.

The notion of class is interesting in the context of Wilf and Michael’s friendship, but it has often been misrepresented. One writer recently failed to fully understand the relationship, in saying that ‘part of Franks’ attraction […] was his working-class ordinariness’.

It is true that Wilf came from a family of twelve who lived in a small terraced house in North London. But despite having little money, they were certainly a cultured family – Wilf’s older brother studied at the Royal College of Music and his father was an orchestral violinist. More misleading, though, is the suggestion that Wilf was somehow ‘ordinary’.

The truth is that my grandfather would be far better described as wildly eccentric. His alternative view of life was in part informed by his inter-war association with an interesting collective of outdoor experimentalists called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift. The Kindred were a camping and hiking group who had broken away from the Scout movement. Influenced by Native American spirituality, they promoted healthy living and craft skills, and sought to build a society free from war or poverty. Many years later, Tippett referred to them as ‘a most extraordinary movement’.

It was through the Kindred that Wilf met a well-connected English eccentric called Rolf Gardiner. He was a pioneer of organic farming, a passionate advocate of traditional folk dance and a leader of Anglo-German youth gatherings. In his late teens, Wilf went to live and work at Gardiner’s Gore Farm Estate in Dorset, where, along with planting trees and constructing barns, the two men would go for naked early morning runs across Cranborne Chase.

Having worked for eighteen months at Gore Farm, Wilf’s life took an extraordinary turn. Gardiner’s close friend Carl Heinrich Becker was minister for culture and education in the Prussian Government, and he arranged for Wilf to study at the Weimar Bauhochschule, an offshoot of the famous Bauhaus design school. My grandfather, who had previously earned a living as a London street artist, suddenly found himself mixing with members of the avant-garde in Weimar Germany. It was here that he first discovered the Marxist politics that he and Tippett would later espouse.

On his return to England, Wilf became involved with the Yorkshire miners who had lost their jobs when the local iron-stone mines closed. Wilf became part of the close-knit mining community, staying in the village of Boosbeck for extended periods as he started a furniture making scheme with a group of locals.

Tippett came to Yorkshire with Francesca Allinson, a dear friend and the only woman with whom he contemplated marriage. He produced musical productions with the miners, including a socialist interpretation of the Robin Hood story. It was here, amongst the hardship and poverty of depression-era Yorkshire that Wilf’s relationship with Michael Tippett blossomed.

A wood carving made by Wilf in 1932, the year he met Tippett. Image reproduced by kind permission of Jessica Anderson.

In 1933, Tippett and his great friend David Ayerst went travelling with Wilf around France and Spain, and it was surely Wilf’s liberating influence which nearly got the young men arrested by a French Gendarme during an impromptu episode of skinny-dipping near the Spanish border.

Tippett’s contemporary letters reveal a collaborative, creative relationship, but one which Wilf was reluctant to commit to. As Tippett wrote in 1937:

It is what he has asked for all the time – for me to turn my eyes elsewhere that he may be able to come closer himself [… ] This time he spends an hour or so with me here on the Blake I am going to set, and with a surer instinct for poetry than mine tells me where to get off. 

At times, Michael’s frustration at Wilf’s hesitancy boiled over into bitter arguments. No doubt, in these dark moments of frustration, Tippett found solace by escaping into an alternative world of musical composition:

I’ve retired into my musical shell again for the moment – also Wilf has become a pivot point for me and it’s got its touch of heartbreak [… ] I don’t like him being away, because I torture myself with difficulties and moralities [… ] the Wilf mood is only in spasms – I’m at work again at music and the season’s concerts – BBC don’t want the Symphony [in B-flat]  

The two men campaigned for peace through international socialism and worked together on numerous creative projects including a ‘Symphony of Youth’ at Brockwell Park in South London. In 1936, it was Tippett who bailed Wilf out after he was arrested while helping to block Oswald Moseley’s fascist Blackshirts from marching through Jewish East London during the so-called ‘Battle Of Cable Street’. Both men would later be imprisoned as conscientious objectors during the Second World War.

A mural depicting The Battle Of Cable Street in Shadwell, East London. Picture by astonishme, shared under Creative Commons.

The intense and tempestuous six-year relationship between the two men ended in complete heart-break for the composer when Wilf fell in love with Meg Masters, a young female dance partner. Tippett wrote the following:

One evening in 1938, I reached the café ahead of him and sat brooding on the section I had reached in the slow movement of my double concerto. When Wilf arrived he said, “I have decided to marry this girl”. I went completely cold […] I returned to Oxted and had such violent dreams, it was as if a whole dam had opened.

The slow movement of the Concerto For Double String Orchestra was perhaps the last direct musical link to the story. It is difficult to read Tippett’s description of the split without feeling something of his pain, especially as he endured further heartbreak when his dear friend Francesca Allinson committed suicide in 1945. But Wilf’s relationship with Meg also ended sadly, though this time it seems that Wilf was left nursing a broken heart.

Tippett sought Wilf out in the mid-1980s, and the two men were reunited 46 years after the split. ‘Wilf Franks had walked out of Michael’s life in 1938, but not out of his dreams’, Tippett’s lifelong friend David Ayerst said. ‘The old magic was still there but no longer assertive or possessive’.

The friendship was rekindled and the two men met up on numerous occasions in old age. The youthful troubles, though, were never far away, and the relationship remained volatile.

We became deeply embroiled in a political argument: Marxism had remained for Wilf a vivid reality. Seeing him again after forty years or so, I went emotionally into a flat spin, but Bill [Meirion Bowen] helped me out of it.

One reason why this profound love affair has not featured more prominently in the Tippett story is a lack of surviving letters between the two men. None were thought to exist, but I recently found a hand-written note the composer sent to my grandparents in his final years. Tippett’s handwriting was now frail and his eyesight fading. This moving letter is likely one of the last he wrote and it reveals that the emotional confusion from the youthful days was still alive.

Dear Wilf and Daphne, to ring you both, then talk only to Wilf, seems to me now, like a confused attempt, by me anyhow, to hold something from the past. Never works. So now, love to you both & good luck to your next generation. For my part, however, I peer into the future. Michael.

Letter shared with the kind permission of Wilf’s daughter, Helen Busby.

As we gather to hear the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra illuminate the beginning of this period in Sir Michael’s work, it is worth remembering the curious love story which dominated this part of the composer’s life, a time that Tippett himself referred to as ‘the Wilf period.’

With thanks Caroline Ayerst for sharing material relating to her father, Malcolm Chase for his research into the East Cleveland Work Camps, and Meirion Bowen for reviewing this article prior to publication. The author also thanks the Will Trustees of the Tippett Estate for permission to quote from the letters and writings of Michael Tippett.

• The Symphony in B-flat will be performed in Glasgow by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on 1st February 2018 (tickets here). 

• Tippett’s String Quartet No1. will be performed in Robin Hood’s Bay, as part of the North Yorkshire Moors Chamber Music Festival, on 20th August 2018 (tickets here).

Danyel Gilgan studied Furniture design at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design before gaining a post graduate teaching qualification at Middlesex University. However most of his career has been spent working in sports broadcasting, and he currently travels the world with the ATP Tennis tour. He has spent the last four years researching the life of his late grandfather, Wilf Franks, whose alternative view of life had a profound effect on Michael Tippett. His research informs a recently-completed book which is a work of biographical fiction entitled ‘Wilfred Franks – The Life Before’ for which he is now seeking a publisher.

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The Bee’s Madrigal

Illustration to The Feminine Monarchie by Charles Butler.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

It’s fair to say that the role of the music theorist is not one overly celebrated in history. It was deep in a book that I first came across the name of Charles Butler, author of The Principles Of Musik, a well regarded treatise in 17th-century England. My curiosity about him was piqued by two factors: his array of interests outside music, most unusually in bee-keeping, and the fact that he spent the largest part of his life in and around the town where I was born – Basingstoke.

Butler was a clergyman and sometime school-master by profession, and the places where he worked can still be seen today. But besides his religious duties, he was also a writer of immense erudition. As a young man he spent several years studying in Oxford, where he gained a Master of Arts degree. University records show he came from Buckinghamshire, and his listed age suggests he was born around 1560.

Whatever drew him south to Hampshire, in 1593 Butler became the rector at Nately Scures, a parish to the east of Basingstoke. Its tiny Norman church of St. Swithun is a real gem that is delightfully well preserved, and was already four centuries old when Butler arrived.

St. Swithun’s church in Nately Scures.

That Butler was interested in more than his parish role is shown by the publication of his first book around this time – a Latin translation of a work on the teachings of Petrus Ramus. Ramus was a French humanist and Protestant convert who had been killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, but his scholastic ideas on rhetoric and logic became very influential after his death.

It must have been encouraging that, after a slow start, Butler’s book seems to have sold very well. Two years after his appointment to Nately, he also took on a position teaching local boys at the Holy Ghost School in Basingstoke. You can find the ruins of the Holy Ghost Chapel in a cemetery behind the railway station, now incongruously framed by the office blocks and apartment buildings of the town centre to the south.

The ruins of the 13th-century Holy Ghost Chapel, to which Butler’s school was attached, are on the left. On the right is what remains of the 16th-century Chapel Of The Holy Trinity.

But in 1600 Butler resigned both roles to become vicar at Wootton St. Lawrence, a small village up in the downs to the west of town. It was here, tucked far away from any major centre of learning, that he lived and worked for the remaining 47 years of his life, and wrote both his music treatise and his bee-keeping study, The Feminine Monarchie.

Although we principally think of music as an art form today, Penelope Gouk has shown that in the intellectual life of 17th-century England, music could mediate between the understanding of mathematics, the sciences and arts, and what is loosely termed ‘natural magic’ – the demonstration of marvellous natural effects.

So at this time, it would have been entirely natural for an educated man like Butler to discourse on music alongside rhetoric, logic, classical texts and theology. What makes him stand out is that he used patient observation to codify the highly practical craft of bee-keeping. And The Feminine Monarchie is what he is chiefly remembered for today.

But it is through Butler’s role as a clergyman that we can perhaps best understand his fascination with bees and music. His writing on both topics is grounded in a strong sense of religious morality. It is not hard to see how a bee colony and a musical composition can both serve as models for a good society – each are made of parts that work together in harmony. Furthermore, in the hierarchy of the hive, the geometry of the honey-comb, and the mathematical ratios of consonant intervals, bees and music can reveal a divine order in nature.

The church in Wootton St. Lawrence.

Butler was certainly not shy about his admiration for these insects. A frontispiece illustration to The Feminine Monarchie shows a honeycomb with the motto Solertia et Labore (skill and industry). In the preface, he writes:

The worke and fruit of the little Bee is so great and wonderfull, so comely for order and beauty, so excellent for Art and wisdome, & so full of pleasure and profit; that the contemplation thereof may well beseeme an ingenious nature.

The book also bears a dedicatory poem by George Wither. Wither was a prolific writer and satirist who led a colourful life, including imprisonment for libel. He also belonged to the same Wither family who owned the Manydown estate in Butler’s parish of Wootton. As it happens, the ancient Manydown Manor would later be frequented by Hampshire’s much more famous literary figure, Jane Austen.

Manydown Manor in 1833, by George Frederick Prosser. Shared under Creative Commons.

However, The Feminine Monarchie does contain one explicit connection to music. Leafing through the pages of a bee-keeping manual today, you would probably not expect to come across four-part choral notation. But this is exactly what Butler gives us. Melissomelos, or The Bee’s Madrigal, is an endearingly eccentric composition, and not only because its lyrics extoll the virtues of bees, in characteristically erudite terms – it also includes a musical imitation of a real sound that a queen bee makes, known as ‘piping’. I suppose you might call it ento-musicology.

The opening verse proceeds as follows:

As of all states the Monarchie is best,
So of all Monarchies that Feminine,
Of famous Amazons excels the rest,
That on this earthie Sphaere haue euer bin,
Whose little hearts in weaker sex (so great a field)
No powers of the mightest Males can make to yield:
They liuing aye, most sober and most chaste,
Their paine-got goods in pleasure scorne to waste.

Besides The Feminine Monarchie, Butler also authored a book on the arguments relating to marriage between cousins – seemingly prompted by his own son William marrying a cousin in 1624. An English Grammar followed in 1633, and here Butler used a new system of orthography, of his own devising. He developed this idea further in the Principles Of Musik, published when he was an impressive 76 years old.

To modern eyes, this new orthography takes some adjustment. But that Butler should even take this step is a testament to his extraordinarily energetic mind. It is also an insight into a world of 17th-century publishing where the written language itself was still being contested, and in which the printer’s craft had become remarkably sophisticated. The Principles features reams of italicised Latin, occasional Greek and even Hebrew lettering, not to mention the many musical examples and a number of diagrams, such as the ‘dial-song’ below.

A ‘dial-song’ illustration from The Principles Of Musik. Butler’s orthography can be seen in features such as the struck-through ‘d’ for ‘th’.

This treatise covers a variety of topics such as the modes, notation, harmony and counterpoint, all the while drawing on a vast range of sources – classical, biblical, and contemporary. But the final part of the book takes a surprising step further than instruction. It makes a defence of music itself.

It is likely that Butler was moved to do this as a reaction to the rising tide of English Puritanism at the time, and its growing sentiment against any church music other than simple Psalm tunes sung by the congregation. That Butler also takes to defending ‘civil’ (secular) music suggests he may have feared that music itself was potentially under threat.

In a vicar’s eyes the primary use of music was, of course, to be in praise of God. But this man who so admired the industry of the bee still understood that a life of toil needed its comforts, and secular music was one of them:

Nature seemeth to bestow Musik upon us as a favour, for the easier enduring of our labours. This use did that Husbandman make of his Singing, at his woork abroad in the field […] and the Goodwife at home about hir huswifri. 

Butler notes the objection that civil music is a vanity, but counters that in any case, all human endeavours are vanities – and it is up to us to raise our children in ‘the nurture and admonition of the Lord’. Ever the classicist, he argues that to wholly prohibit music would be like ‘the angri Lacedaemonian who commanded the Vines of his Countri to bee grubbed up, becaus soom woolde be drunk with the fruit thereof’.

In his epilogue, Butler concludes that ‘all things rightly weighed, there is no sufficient cause, that Wee shoulde deprive our selvs of these permitted Comforts’, so long as we conduct ourselves ‘Soberly, Righteously, and Holily’. In essence, he adopted a position that Christian virtues can ensure that music does not lead us into sin.

The interior of St. Lawrence’s church.

In a 1972 Master’s thesis, John Derek Shute groups Butler alongside other literary clergyman of the 17th century, such as George Herbert and Robert Herrick. But in his careful observation of bees, Butler was also arguably an example of a parson-naturalist: those who saw the study of nature as a means of being closer to God. As George Wither put it in his poem for The Feminine Monarchie:

And Praise deserves this Author; who hath chose
So well his Times of Leisure to dispose;
And in that Recreation to delight,
Which honour God, and us advantage might […]
What Recreation better can befit
Our grave Divines; than (when the Holy writ
Is laid aside) in Gods great booke of Creatures
To reade his Wisdome, and their usefull Natures?

What’s more, Butler was in fact a direct ancestor of a celebrated parson-naturalist. Gilbert White, author of The Natural History And Antiquities Of Selborne, was the great-grandson of Butler’s daughter Elizabeth, and in his youth he attended the Holy Ghost School.

The third edition of The Feminine Monarchie was dedicated to the Queen Consort Henrietta, wife of Charles I. But as Charles’ troubled reign descended into Civil War, battles raged uncomfortably close to home, at Alresford and Basing House. At one point Parliamentarian troops were even stationed at Manydown.

The Basingstoke area as shown in a 1646 map of Hampshire by Joan Blaeu.

Butler died a very old man in 1647, and in those war-torn final years he might have thought fondly of the feminine monarch who reigned more peacefully through his Oxford days and the first four decades of his life: Elizabeth I.

Manydown Manor was sadly pulled down in the 1960s, but Butler’s church at Wootton St. Lawrence still stands, and I would recommend that anyone in the area takes the time to visit. Unlike Nately Scures, which suffers from the roar of a main road, Wootton has retained the serenity of the downs, and this beautiful building has an atmosphere of wonderful stillness as soon as you step through the doorway. A lovely stained glass window was put in place in honour of Butler after the coronation of Elizabeth II. At the dedication service in 1954, an Oxford choir came to sing The Bee’s Madrigal.

Charles Butler’s stained glass window, St. Lawrence’s church.

Butler is a mere footnote in music history. He is an inspirational figure for his curiosity and intellect, but I think we can also be inspired by his defence of music’s value against religious fundamentalism. Because in Britain today, music education is vulnerable to an economic fundamentalism – a political culture that places the highest esteem around the creation of profit. Its sham morality is ‘competitiveness’, through which the value of the arts and the natural world are often relegated to secondary importance.

This same search for endless economic growth has helped to create the most dangerous problem of our age – the unfolding climate crisis – and has even contributed to a worrying decline in populations of Butler’s beloved bees, a key pollinating species. So in a sense, we should all be amateur naturalists. We should all concern ourselves with how our lives interact with the natural systems upon which we depend.

Furthermore, any vision for a better future will also find an important place for music. Because to learn music – whether through the Western notated system or any other tradition – enriches our lives immeasurably. Its performance gives comfort, strengthens relationships, and allows us to communicate deep human feeling. And like a kind of ‘natural magic’, it can be summoned from the very air itself.

So while you won’t find many statues to music theorists, in a church window in the tiny village of Wootton, you can see the image of an obscure scholar who is worth remembering. You don’t need to share Charles Butler’s religious convictions, nor his fascination with bees, to appreciate the value of many parts working together in harmony.

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Walking In The Air

Roseberry Topping in the snow, by Chris Combe. Shared under Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

Since its release in 1982, The Snowman has become a much-loved Christmas classic. If you’re a Brit under the age of 40, there’s a good chance this film was an annual television tradition in your childhood, as it was in mine. Its story, of a Snowman who takes a boy on a magical flight to meet Santa Claus, is charming and poignant. And unusually, it is told without dialogue – through animation and music alone.

The score for The Snowman was composed by Howard Blake, and in a long career it has become his most famous work. Its musical icon is the centrepiece song for boy soprano, Walking In The Air. 

The film is based on a children’s book by Raymond Briggs. The soft and warmly atmospheric animation style which lends it such charm is modelled on his illustrations. But interestingly, the original was not a Christmas story at all. Instead of a trip to meet Santa Claus, it featured only a short flight to Brighton pier. Briggs’ idea was to gently introduce children to mortality, as the Snowman is shown to have melted away at the very end.

It might seem strange then to adapt this story for Christmas – the season of Jesus’ birth. But in doing so, this story acquires new shades of meaning, drawing on a different kind of childhood loss.

The Snowman taps into a common theme among Christmas tales, both sacred and secular – that in the dark skies of a winter night, magic can happen. The star of Bethlehem, the angel Gabriel, Santa Claus in his sleigh: these are all miracles invoked in our festive traditions, and they enchant young children.

And there too, above our deep and dreamless sleep, we hope it might start to snow. It is this most longed-for Christmas promise – one so rarely fulfilled in the south of England, anyway – that forms the introduction to The Snowman. We see sweeping vistas of white countryside, and the Walking In The Air theme is foreshadowed on piano and strings – wistful, melancholy and mysterious.

For most of its first half, the film has a gently playful tone. At his rural house, the boy and his magical Snowman engage in a series of nocturnal hijinks, and the score tracks their actions with nimbleness and witty touches. We see the Snowman swap his nose for various pieces of fruit, and hear a strain of the song Oranges And Lemons. As he sneezes, the orchestra lets out a cacophonous splurge of sound.

These episodes lull you into what seems to be a whimsical tale of childish misbehaviour, played out with familiar modern objects – a set of dentures, a TV, a motorbike. But all along, it has another magical card up its sleeve.

As it happens, The Snowman was released in the same year as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Both are tales of boys with an otherworldly friend who gives them the ability to fly. And both set the moment of flight to memorable music. John Williams’ score for E.T. marks take-off with a theme of triumphant exhilaration, soaring higher and higher.

Blake’s flight, however, is very different. As the Snowman takes the boy’s hand and leads him running through the garden, a striking series of upward flourishes in the orchestra alert us that something amazing is about to happen. But when they start to fly, the music falls away to a high tremolo note in the strings. There is an eerie calm as Walking In The Air begins, underpinned by dark notes in the bass, and icy violins above.

This flying sequence suspends the rhythm of the story in stillness. The music comes to the fore now, with the fresh sound of a human voice and a glacial grandeur. Beautifully crafted animation shows unfolding views of winter scenery in continuous snowfall.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the origin of this enchanting song is a story of very adult disillusionment. Blake has described how, some time before The Snowman’s commission, he had become ill through overwork and exhaustion. On doctor’s advice he took up meditation, and decided to have a break in Cornwall. It was there on a beach one day that this melody ‘of perfect innocence’ came to him.

Meditation teaches us to be in the moment, rather than toiling towards distant goals. Similarly, Walking In The Air is about the purity of experience in the present tense. Only here are the boy’s thoughts given voice, suggesting a newly enhanced state of being. Meanwhile the lyrics – also written by Blake – are a stream of consciousness, affirming the act of flying and the sights they can see.

Far across the world
The villages go by like dreams
The rivers and the hills, the forests and the streams.

But it is Blake’s haunting, deceptively simple music that really elevates this scene. Walking In The Air has no chorus – the verse is its melodic hook. The tune is brief, with a secretive, teasing quality. It alternates between a short repeated rhythm and long held notes – there is strangely little else for us to get a handle on.

The dreaminess of the flight is also emphasised through irregular timings. Each verse is nine bars long, an odd number which lacks an intuitive four-square feel. Blake varies the lead-in to later verses too, and together these touches disorient your sense of when musical changes will arrive.

At the same time, the shapes of the music poetically reflect their flight over a series of hills: the voice swoops above piano arpeggios that undulate up and down. The grandeur of the orchestration gradually builds, matching the scenery as it becomes more mountainous.

The success of The Snowman has helped Walking In The Air to become a popular Christmas song in its own right. A separate recording was later released as a single, and its sheet music arrangements have become a valued part of many childhoods. But within the film, the song has an extra narrative significance, and forms an important bridge in its arc.

When they reach Santa Claus’s home, the boy discovers a Snowman party is in full swing. This place is full of merriment, and seems to represent the true Christmas spirit of good company. Santa presents the boy with the gift of a scarf, but only after a extended dance sequence, set to music of springing jollity. Crucially, the festive atmosphere is in striking contrast to the quiet house he has left behind.

During the flight back, the Walking In The Air theme is transformed into a major key, played instrumentally with lush orchestration. It is the happiest music of the score, and only here is there the kind of cosy sweetness we expect from the conclusion of a Christmas film. Our boy seems to have gained a new contentment through this friendship, and their shared experience.

But of course, it is not the end. The following morning, the boy runs downstairs and is dejected to discover that the Snowman has melted. Only a formless pile of snow remains. He reaches into his dressing gown pocket and finds the scarf, to prove it was not just a dream. It is there, but the magic is gone.

As the credits roll and we hear the piano tones of Walking In The Air once more, this music is now a sad reminder of all he has lost. So too is the scarf, whose meaning is now clear. Our Christmas gifts are only as valuable as the relationships they represent.

The Snowman succeeds as Briggs intended, by introducing children to themes of passing. But it speaks to adults too, by evoking a lost world of childhood wonder. It resonates with the way that memories of Christmas help us to mark out time in our lives. For my generation, the film itself is part of those memories too.

By ending in disappointment, The Snowman also touches on a sadder truth – that for many, Christmas will not be a happy experience. For various personal reasons, we might wish to be taken away to a place with more laughter, more music, and more joy. This is even hinted at in the ambiguous family circumstances of the boy’s home. He does not seem to have siblings for company, and his father remains a strangely aloof figure, who does not play with him in the fresh snow.

The Snowman is a hybrid work, and its enchanting storytelling is so much more than the sum of its parts. It remains so popular in part because its quiet truthfulness stands out, among the bombardments of gaudy Christmas marketing that clamour for our attention. Its animation and music are crafted with a love and dedication that truly fits the spirit of the season. And we understand that its final message of passing is also one of hope – we must make the most of our relationships while we can.

As we continue to tell children Christmas stories, it is a pleasure for adults to see young eyes inspired by their magic. But when the Snowman leads the boy into the air, he puts an arm around him, and for a short while it seems he can do what no parent can. He can show you that the magic is real. He can raise you to a place above the troubles of the world, a place where you will be forever loved and protected.

‘I’m finding I can fly so high above with you’, the boy sings, as the Snowman guides him across a sleeping wonderland. It is a beautiful dream, while it lasts. But it too must melt away, like the rarest Christmas snow.

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Reed Stanzas

The river Alde at Snape. Photo by Andrew Barclay. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

On the stony beach at Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, there stands a sculpture of a broken scallop shell. At over four metres high, its steel rim is pierced by a line of words: ‘I hear those voices that will not be drowned’. The composer Benjamin Britten used to walk along this beach, and the shell is dedicated to him, the celebrated resident who co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival. Its evocative words are uttered by the protagonist of one of his most famous operas, the tormented fisherman of Peter Grimes.

Sculptures are the public art form that most directly interact with landscape. Yet here is an artwork also in dialogue with a musical story. And while music is invisible, it has at least as much power to enchant our perception of place.

I recently discovered the third string quartet of Sally Beamish, Reed Stanzas, which was premiered in 2011. The work owes its own debt to Britten. Beamish composed it for the Elias Quartet, and she revealed how its name arose from listening to their recordings of Britten’s music. It brought back memories of her days playing viola at Snape, and ‘the wind blowing through the reed beds’ on the nearby river Alde. This village, five miles inland from Aldeburgh, is home to the Snape Maltings concert hall, which was established by Britten as part of the Aldeburgh Festival.

But another location looms large in Reed Stanzas. It was partly composed at the opposite extreme of Britain, on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. The two places, as Beamish puts it, are ‘very different, but equally windswept’. Her cottage had a view of the meadow along the shoreline, a special habitat known as the machair. The ‘loneliness and vastness’ of these two landscapes, experienced and remembered, underpins the music.

Machair on Harris, by James Laing. Creative Commons.

Beamish has lived in Scotland since 1990, and the country’s traditional music has been a strong influence in her work. The quartet begins with a melody ‘in the manner of Pibroch’ – a Highland bagpipe tradition. This is given to the Elias’ second violinist Donald Grant, who is also a skilled player of traditional Scottish fiddle. In the premiere recording below, he walks on stage playing this theme, so that the music seems to emerge out of another tradition, and another time.

I have written about Vaughan Williams’ tone poem In The Fen Country, which also portrays of a vast East Anglian landscape. Like that work, the solo of modal melody which opens Reed Stanzas conveys both a loneliness and a sense of history.

But whereas Vaughan Williams’ piece blossoms into full-bodied impressionism, Beamish’s approach is reticent, fragmentary, and mysterious. Much of Reed Stanzas is quiet and high in register, avoiding richer textures. The string quartet medium is more of a charcoal sketch, deftly outlining a vastness it cannot fully describe.

As Beamish mentions in her programme note, bagpipes are one of a host of instruments that use reeds in their construction. Clarinets, oboes and accordions have all called on them to create sound, while the body of the ney, a flute heard in Arabic music, is made from the stem of a giant reed.

She also mentions the huge variety of symbolisms that reeds have acquired across different cultures. As long as humans have needed access to water, they have been navigating reed beds. Like the infant Moses hidden in the bulrushes of the Nile, they appear in many of our oldest stories.

Reeds mark the meeting of land and water, but it is their dance with the air which seems to fascinate most. Aesop told the fable of how the weak reed bends in the wind, but it is the strong tree that falls when the storm comes. Blaise Pascal described mankind as a ‘thinking reed’ – we have the capacity for understanding the universe, even as we are fragile against its powers.

Achille Michallon, The Oak And The Reed.

The gentle movements of reed beds prompt listening, and contemplation. To begin his spiritual epic Masnavi, the Sufi poet Rumi invites us to listen to the reed flute, and hear how its song laments the separation from its bed. Its notes are brought about not just by the wind, he says, but also the ‘fire of love’.

When W.B. Yeats titled an early poetry collection The Wind Among The Reeds, he invoked the hushed atmosphere of the supernatural. Of these poems, The Host Of The Air draws on an Irish folk tale. A man is driving ducks from the reeds of a lake – at dusk, he hears the uncanny sound of piping, and is briefly ushered into the ethereal dream-land of the faeries. There he sees his new bride, who has been stolen away into their world. The vision vanishes, but the strange notes of the piping remain, ‘high up in the air’.

The musicality of reed beds are assured by the birds that dwell in and around them. Beamish describes how they haunt the ‘salt-scented wilderness’ of Harris too. She was so ‘berated’ by a lapwing while composing Reed Stanzas that its call was composed into the score.

The way that Beamish introduces this work invites us to think deeply about landscapes, and the more universal aspects of our relationship to nature. But by linking the work to Snape, she also embeds it into a history of a particular place, one as inevitably connected to Britten as the Alde is to the sea.

Snape Maltings from the air, with Aldeburgh in the distance. Photo by John Fielding. Creative Commons.

Britten was born in Lowestoft, and moved to Snape in his mid-twenties. Before he founded the Aldeburgh Festival, he and his future partner Peter Pears spent three years pursuing new opportunities in America.

During this time, Britten read an article by EM Forster about the Aldeburgh-born poet George Crabbe. It included extracts from his narrative poem Peter Grimes, a disturbing tale of a sadistic fisherman accused of murdering apprentice boys. Britten bought a book of his poems, and Crabbe’s evocations of the Suffolk coast he knew so well galvanised his homesickness. Britten later described the discovery like an epiphany: ‘I suddenly realized where I belonged and what I lacked.’ The idea of an opera on the Grimes story was born.

What Beamish calls the ‘vastness and loneliness’ of the landscape is there in Crabbe’s poetry. Forster sets the scene: ‘expanses of mud, saltish commons, the marsh-birds crying […] Crabbe heard that sound and saw that melancholy, and they got into his verse’. The first lines that Forster quotes – and so the first that Britten read – describe Grimes alone in his boat.

When tides were neap, and, in the sultry day,
Through the tall bounding mudbanks made their way,
Which on each side rose swelling, and below
The dark warm flood ran silently and slow;
There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide,
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide […]

At this point, Grimes is an accused man – he ‘hangs his head’ while he watches, as if in guilt. The slow, warm tide seems a sinister force, while the ‘hot slimy channels’ of the estuary suggest a unwelcoming borderland where no man should wish to hide – an alien place, even a disgusting one.

Beside the melancholy of the flat marshes, Crabbe touches on a disconcerting aspect of estuaries – their blurred boundaries and confused intermingling. They are a place where the land begins to take on the level shape of water, where even as the river flows out, the sea comes in.

After Britten and Pears returned to England, Peter Grimes was premiered in 1945. The work was wildly successful. Britten moved to Aldeburgh, and together with Pears and the director Eric Crozier, they co-founded the Aldeburgh Festival in 1948. Composer biographies often tell of talented youths journeying to the city to learn their craft – not so many of them travel back to bring the music home. Britten’s decision to base himself in Suffolk, and to run a festival there, have charged this part of the country with a musical energy that lingers long after his death.

The Scallop at Aldeburgh beach, photo by Airwolfhound. Wikimedia Commons.

But Beamish’s comparison of two ‘very different, but equally windswept’ landscapes raises broader questions: of the longer, slower processes that lie behind our relationship to place. To this end, Harris and Suffolk are particularly good examples.

It is easy to forget that some aspects of our landscapes are much older than others. 9000 years ago, you could have walked from where Aldeburgh stands today all the way to Denmark. The lower sea level of the last ice age meant that a vast area was exposed, now known as Doggerland. Here, Mesolithic humans once flourished. The cloudy waters which brood so inscrutably in Peter Grimes are the graveyard of an ancient culture.

‘What a wallop the sea makes as it pounds at the shingle!’, Forster wrote of Crabbe’s hometown. The waves drum out a warning – if they so choose, they can overwhelm us still. In 1953, a storm combined with a high spring tide, and water surged inland all along this low-lying coast, creating one of the worst disasters in British peacetime history. In England over 300 people were killed. Britten’s house was flooded – its address, appropriately enough, was on Crabbe Street.

The sea’s violence persists, even incrementally. Suffolk’s vulnerability is encoded in a coastline that suffers continual erosion. Each tide that oozes up its estuaries is the long breath of a sleeping giant.

The chalk and clays of this county are geologically young, but in contrast, the Outer Hebrides can boast some of the oldest rocks in Europe. Their backbone is made of the Lewisian Gneisses – true hardy survivors, formed and reformed in stages between one and three billion years ago. This island chain, with their prehistoric standing stones of Callanish, are themselves standing stones to a third of the earth’s history.

Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis. Photo by Marta Gutowska, wikimedia commons.

The rocky peaks of Harris project a kind of craggy resilience in a stormy sea. But the machair meadows that Beamish’s cottage looked out upon are much more delicate. This rare ecosystem is created by sandy sediments and shell matter which are washed ashore by the waves and blown inland. The machair then is quite literally ‘wind-swept’: the wind, via the waves, swept it into being.

With different landscapes come different patterns of living. The Outer Hebrides have a history of crofting, while low-lying East Anglia is particularly suited to arable farming. And it was access to prime agricultural country, along with a river passage, that made Snape a choice site for Victorian entrepreneur Newson Garrett to build a Maltings – a place to malt barley for beer, and ship it to breweries.

When malting finally ceased in the 1960s, the Aldeburgh Festival was outgrowing its smaller venues in the area. Britten saw the opportunity to lease the largest building on the Maltings site, and convert it into a concert hall. And so it began that strains of music joined the wind among the reeds on the river Alde.

Snape Maltings concert hall, by Amanda Slater. Creative Commons.

Forster said that Crabbe was ‘a provincial; and I am using provincial as a word of high praise’. A similar sentiment could be expressed about Britten’s decision to root himself in his home county. But unlike Crabbe, who never left these shores, Britten was also a worldly traveller, whose cosmopolitanism informed the music he composed here.

In Japan, a Shinto creation myth describes deities sprouting into existence like reed shoots from primeval waters. It was during a trip to Tokyo that Britten attended a performance of Sumidagawa (Sumida River), a play in the highly stylised Noh theatre tradition. Its simple story, of a madwoman crossing a river in search of her lost son, fascinated him.

With librettist William Plomer, Britten made this into a ‘church parable’ – a one-act opera for church performance. The tale was moved to a Christian setting in medieval East Anglia, under the new name Curlew River.

Britten was keen to avoid a pastiche of Noh, but he retained a ritualised form and an eastern-inspired palette of sound. We are told that a miracle took place nearby, ‘where, in our reedy fens, the Curlew River runs’. In the unfolding tale, the madwoman takes the river ferry in search of her lost son, only to find out he has died – on the far bank lies his grave.

The river and its curlews seem laden with a strange meaning. Using an ensemble of just seven instruments, Britten creates an extraordinary atmosphere. Hypnotic tone-clusters on the organ recall the sho, a Japanese reed mouth-organ.

Ferry Boat And Capital Birds On The Sumida River, by Katsushika Hokusai.

Stricken by grief at her son’s graveside, the miracle occurs when the madwoman and her fellow passengers hear the dead boy’s voice. He tells her to go in peace, for they shall meet again in heaven. As in Yeats’ poem, the reedy shore is a place that whispers to us from other worlds.

Echoing the traditional fiddle solo that begins Beamish’s quartet, Curlew River is framed by a procession of plainchant – its performers sing as they walk in, and take their places. Our parable seems to emerge out of another realm, and Britten’s scoring shares much of the quartet’s understated aesthetic. Both works ascribe a mysterious power to locality; both simultaneously suggest that these locations could be anywhere.

Reed Stanzas touches on the fact that Britten’s legacy is not just in the body of music he left, but in a deepening enchantment of the places that he lived and worked. This process continues in various ways: through the festival he founded, The Scallop on Aldeburgh beach, and the local celebrations that marked his 2013 centenary. Beamish’s quartet adds a new chapter to that ongoing story.

We can see it too when concertgoers post pictures of the Snape reed beds on social media, and marvel at the beauty of the location. Like a site of pilgrimage, its remoteness from the metropolitan centres of music has become part of its appeal and enchanted meaning.

The reed beds outside Snape Maltings. Photo by David Train. Creative Commons.

Reed Stanzas is a relatively short work, but the plurality of its title suggests that there is more to the music than the riverside of Snape, or the machair of Harris. Through its quiet contemplation and fragmented form, it prompts the imagination to a greater vastness, and a counterpoint of histories sounding in timescales orders of magnitude apart.

The music seems to say that, if we listen to the wind in the reeds, we too can hear voices that refuse to be drowned. They speak in stanzas as old as the first footprint in the tidal mud. In this bed of memory we crossed the lost plains of Doggerland, and touched the sand of the world’s farthest islands. In there too we spelled circles out of stones, moulded deep in the earth over a billion years ago.

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Rearrangements Reconsidered

Rachmaninov at the piano. Cropped from source. Wikimedia Commons.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

By personal associations of an untraceable nature, the music of Rachmaninov has a quality of winter for me. It is by no accident then that around the time of year that Christmas decorations are slowly appearing, I find myself listening to a work by this Russian composer.

A recent choice is the so-called ‘fifth piano concerto’, performed by pianist Julius-Jeongwon Kim and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Francis. As Rachmaninov has four piano concertos to his name, one may be surprised to come across this disc. There is little evidence that the composer ever conceived of a fifth work in the genre. In fact, this concerto is a remoulding of Rachmaninov’s second symphony.

Yet this ‘fifth’ concerto is no mere transcription. Beyond the added texture of a solo piano, the symphony’s four-movement structure is cast into a three-movement form by amalgamating the Scherzo and Adagio of the original work. There are also some noticeable personal stamps of Alexander Warenberg, who arranged the work in 2001 by commission of Pieter Van Winkel and Alexandre Rachmaninov (the composer’s grandson). With such reshaping of the second symphony, and the degree of re-composition considered, a newly numbered concerto status assigned to the work is somewhat justifiable.

Most certainly, this is no occasion for purists. Warenburg’s creation obviously goes against the composer’s intention of the symphony as a complete work, and the balance of the original architecture is questioned. Whether this concerto, so extensively reworked, can be called a Rachmaninov piece is debatable. Still, interpretational diversity and rearrangements are common in the performing arts, and classical music is no exception.

Otto Klemperer’s lugubrious 1965 recording of Handel’s Messiah will undoubtedly raise eyebrows among Baroque specialists, because its approach is thought to be much against the way music was played in the 18th century. The uniqueness of this recording is especially pronounced when compared to ‘period’ performances, such as those by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Beyond the issues of slow tempo and use of modern playing techniques (e.g. vibrato), Klemperer’s decision to diminish the role of the harpsichord, use modern instruments, and ignore da capos, (i.e. repeats), give an altogether new feel to the Baroque masterpiece.

Incidentally, it is the same conductor who cut around 220 bars from his studio recording of Bruckner’s 8th symphony, citing that ‘the composer was so full of musical invention that he went too far.’ Still, it was no rare occasion for conductors of past generations to manipulate what is written on the score. Furtwängler and Mengelberg produced exhilarating performances at the expense of strictly adhering to tempo markings. The symphonies of Robert Schumann have been particular targets of re-orchestration, given the widespread belief of the German composer’s inexperience in this regard. To cite the Hungarian conductor George Szell, Schumann’s ‘inability to establish proper balances … can and must be helped with all means known to any professional conductor who professes to be a cultured and style-conscious musician.’ Gustav Mahler, who documented his own edited versions of symphonies by Schumann and Beethoven by altering the form as well as the orchestration, was convinced such rearrangements would benefit the music as these changes would fit modern ears.

Still, pure objectivity is foreign to these reworkings, as they often reflect the arranger’s own personal style, perhaps inevitably so. Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral arrangements of J.S. Bach often have a lyrical ardour, reflecting the string sound the conductor nurtured in the Philadelphia Orchestra. The pointillistic colour of Arnold Schoenberg’s adaptation of Bach’s prelude and fugue in E flat major, on the other hand, may owe to the composer’s idea of Klangfarbenmelodie, where a musical melody is broken down between various instruments.

If anything, given the contour unique to each instrument, rearrangements themselves often produce unique emotional effects. Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour On The Cross proves a good example of how a single work can exist in no fewer than four different combinations, (orchestral, string quartet, choral, piano), all written/approved by the composer himself. Unquestionably, the intimacy of the piano version can never match the thunderous sublimity present in the choral version of the work.

Often, the reworking of certain works require much more than the transfer between mediums. Notable examples include the completion of unfinished symphonies, left by composers such as Enescu, Elgar, Mahler and Bruckner. These are the efforts of scholars and musicians, who reconstruct a work based on their research of existing manuscripts, correspondences and sketches. The recent completion of Schubert’s ‘unfinished’ symphony in B minor by Venzago and the Kammerorchester Basel is especially enlightening in the creative direction it took. In addition to the two movements usually performed, Venzago includes two further movements, based on existing sketches and excerpts of the incidental music to Rosamunde. The arrangement is informed by the record of the composer supposedly having used the finished finale of the symphony as a substitute for sections of the Rosamunde score.

Unfortunately, not all re-workings are clear in the delineation between the composer’s own input and the works of colleagues. One case is Mozart’s Requiem, a work left unfinished at the composer’s death, and believed to have been finished by a contemporary Franz Xaver Süssmayr. Borodin’s opera Prince Igor was a work left in such fragmented manuscripts that the joint effort of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov was necessary for its posthumous performance. In both cases, the question of the extent of the input of the original composer is a perennial itch among scholars and performers alike.

Then there is Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s flair for adopting and re-composing existing melodies is reflected in his words that ‘lesser artists borrow, great artists steal’. The wide range of his practice ranges from the numerous remodellings of his own works – Pulcinella, which is based on music from 18th century Italy, exists in three different versions – to compositions based on melodies outside classical music. The Fairy’s Kiss, composed as a ballet work commemorating the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, is rooted on the late composer’s early piano works. The unmistakable presence of Stravinsky’s clarity and rhythmic alertness combines with Tchaikovsky’s melodic sensibility to wondrous effect. Much like Venzago’s attempt at completing Schubert’s symphony, this is a case of how rearrangements are not bounded by specific genres.

Purists will exist in any field of the performing arts, in the form of voices pointing to adherence to the intentions of the creator, or in the will to refrain from disrupting an order set by standards of the past.

But an important consideration is the validity of the so-called original intentions. There is no way of determining exactly how Handel wanted his oratorios to be played, nor how Borodin wanted his opera to be shaped. Clearly, Schubert did not expect his B minor symphony to be performed as an unfinished two-movement work, nor did Tchaikovsky expect his youthful piano works to form the basis of a ballet with 20th century musical idioms. Yet these works still get performed in their various ways, and they are as appreciated and as moving as ever.

As the conductor Herbert von Karajan noted, music-making is like the touching of fresh snow; once touched by the warmth of human hands, snow ceases to be the pure thing it was – yet without touching the snow, it is impossible to feel it. To put it differently, interpretation is inevitable in musical performance. If this is true, the notions of composers being presented objectively or truthfully soon acquire layers of vanity if not absurdity. As such, re-creation is intrinsic to the very nature of music-making, to which the act of rearranging works is merely an extension.

Herbert von Karajan, 1938.

If anything, what is relevant to life never will cease to be questioned and reinvented. Thus it is the music lover’s responsibility to recognize the diversity of creation and the unique surprises they provide, and that music is never a settled matter when written down. Like language, music does not live off predestined absolutes, but exists as an organism of ever-evolving nature. So, let the music speak for itself in all its vast possibilities.

As I listen to Rachmaninov’s fifth piano concerto, I glimpse the inner world of the composer from a new light. The sensitive and clear-eyed playing of Julius Kim combines with the LSO’s clarity and warmth. While the second movement – based on the symphony’s two middle movements – works surprisingly well, the biggest surprise waits in the Allegro vivace. Here, Julius Kim’s composed poise generates a chamber music-like intimacy with the orchestra and conductor, even in the most virtuosic of moments. I am convinced. The music has spoken.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’). He contributes regularly to Bachtrack, Seen and Heard and MusicWeb International. His writings are available on his blog Where Cherries Ripen.

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