All posts by Corymbus

High-Prized Noise

Thomas Mace, from Musick’s Monument. Source.

‘Music’s not what it used to be’. ‘Kids these days, with their so-called music’. These are familiar refrains. Most of us develop a strong connection with music in our youth. But as years progress and fashions change, some of us end up feeling left behind.

While leafing through Ernst Meyer’s book English Chamber Music, I discovered just this type of complaint made by Thomas Mace in the late 17th century. He castigated the ‘Wonderful Swiftnesz’ and ‘High-Prized Noise’ of the new fashion for violin ensembles, which he thought were ‘fit to make a Man’s Ear Glow, and Fill his Brain full of Frisks’.

Looking back to the viol consort music that had flourished before the Civil War, he wrote: ‘we would never allow Any Performer to Over-top, or Out-cry another by loud Play […] This Caution made the Musick Lovely, and Very Contentive.’

Today, in an age of ear-splitting amplification, it’s amusing to imagine Mace trembling before a group of bewigged fiddlers. There are nostalgics in every age: no doubt people expressed similar consternation at the arrival of Rock ’n’ Roll. It would be an interesting research project to compile such comments throughout music history, and compare the supposed virtues people feared were being lost.

In terms of classical music though, there is a clear difference between then and now. Mace was writing before the creation of a canon – today, classical music is dominated by old music. So although performance practices have changed significantly over the centuries, in one sense classical music is what it used to be.

A few years after Mace’s comments, John Playford’s published The Division Violin. I recently came across a YouTube video of two Grounds from Playford’s work, performed by Baroque violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman.

‘Divisions’ were a chance for violinists to show off their technique by improvising variations on a theme. And there are plenty of fast runs here, but I love the sense of ease and freedom in this performance. You can see it in their body language, and at the end they turn to each other and smile. They are enjoying themselves, something also in evidence in their video of a Schmelzer Sonata.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed playing early music on the piano. I like the cleanness of the notes on the page, without all the fussy dynamic and articulation symbols that clutter up later scores. This simplicity feels more honest, open, and full of possibility. It feels like you are being trusted – you can figure out the nuances for yourself.

I am not a nostalgic – there were no ‘good old days’ – as times change, I think we simply gain and lose different things. Since Mace’s period, classical music has developed enormous complexity of form, and technical refinement in the articulation of sound. It has accrued a canon, and a ‘temple of music’ culture of elite performance which did not exist when much of the music we hear today was composed. In fact, like the viol consorts that Mace cherished, a lot of chamber music would have been written with the private enjoyment of musicians in mind.

But it’s not entirely obvious that the increase in notational demands on musicians, and the decline of improvisation in classical music, is necessarily an overall improvement in affairs. My feelings about this waver. There are days when I want precisely the immersive experience of an in-depth performance in a concert hall. But there are other days when I want music that is easy to listen to, and that makes me – and the musicians – more allowances.

Furthermore, watching the Playford video, I find it hard not to think that of all the 19th-century developments in classical music, the normalisation of wide contrasts in volume may be the one I’m most ambivalent about.

Mace’s concern about ‘over-topping’ violinists had it the wrong way round: today many musics are louder than classical, but few are also so quiet. This places an inherent tension in the social experience of the public concert, which is the need for pristine silence. You know how this one goes: tutting among the audience, endless debates about coughing and applause. Sometimes it feels like music making without the smile.

Whether this in-built fussiness bothers you or not, it is the yin to the yang of the particular path of development that classical music has pursued. And yet, with all this considered, it feels significant that the current culture of the art-form so fetishises Bach. Why, after all, does Radio 3 have a ‘Bach Before 7’ slot every weekday morning? Why was I taught to emulate Bach fugues at university, 250 years after his death? Why is he the go-to choice for so many soloist encores after a big Romantic-era piece?

It’s his sublime mastery of his craft that makes him so revered, you would probably say. That is undoubted. But I think it’s something else too: his relative evenness. Bach doesn’t jump out at you, he doesn’t scream and whisper. Bach feels like a return to music’s fundamentals. He feels like coming home.

Some of my favourite concerts I’ve been to have been performances of early music, and part of that is doubtless because it tends to fit within a comfortable, sociable listening range. And while it is in some ways limited compared to later music, that can paradoxically make it feel more at ease, and more free.

That sense of freedom is also why I’ve recently enjoyed learning to play Byrd’s keyboard variations on the song John Come Kiss Me Now. Although written for the tonal strictures of the virginal, it overflows with joyful invention. The part where Byrd suddenly crashes into triplets is enormously satisfying, once you’ve got your head and fingers around the rhythmic mischief he’s up to. At that point, I find it hard not to smile.

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Letters Of Lamentation

Gloss on the Lamentations of Jeremiah, Walters Manuscript, 12th Century. Source.

To my mind, Thomas Tallis composed some of the most beautiful music ever written. My appreciation of him is agnostic: it does not matter that much of his sacred choral music is in Latin, a language I have never learned. Nor does it matter that I’m not a singer, and have little experience of the liturgical world his music relates to.

What I love about Tallis is his gravity and naturalness: the way he combines sonorous stasis with florid flights. It’s not standard practice, but I sometimes like to play Tallis on the piano, just to feel how he does it under the fingers. And I was recently going through his first setting of The Lamentations Of Jeremiah when I noticed something odd.

One of my favourite passages is set to the single word ‘Aleph’. But unlike the other parts in my edition, it didn’t have an English translation underneath. A later passage, on the word ‘Beth’, was similarly lacking.

I can often make an educated guess with Latin, but I had no idea what these words meant, so I typed them into Google. What I learned must be old news to many choral singers, but it surprised me. They weren’t Latin at all. They were the names of the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

Lamentations is an Old Testament book, so it makes sense that it originated in Hebrew. Attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, it bewails the fall of Jerusalem to its enemies in 586 BC, interpreting it as a sign of God’s wrath.

And as I discovered, the inclusion of Hebrew alphabet names was, in fact, a common feature of Lamentations settings in the Renaissance. It makes them an unlikely textual palimpsest, spanning two thousand years.

Woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860. Lamentations of Jeremiah. Source.

Hans T. David outlines the story of these letters in a fascinating article. Ancient Hebrew poetry sometimes used an acrostic form, running through the alphabet series. The alphabet, symbolising order and completeness, is suitable for praising God, and was used for ‘some of the most exalted’ poems.

But the original Lamentations poems took this idea to an unusual extent. All bar one of its five chapters – as the poems became in the Bible – use alphabet acrostics, with variations in the number of lines per letter. In this tragic context, perhaps the exalted acrostic form had an ironic inversion – as Norman K. Gottwald has argued, it could be seen to spell out ‘the collective grief of the community in every aspect’.

That the letters found their way into the music books of Renaissance Europe is an impressive survival. It relied on them being retained through translations into Greek, and then into Latin, for the Vulgate Bible. But Lamentations acquired its musical impetus when the church incorporated it into the lessons for the Tenebrae Office.

Forming part of Holy Week, Tenebrae marked the extinguishing of light in the days preceding Easter Sunday, before Christ’s resurrection. Though it predated Jesus by half a millennium, the book of Lamentations fitted the mood for this period of sorrow and darkness.

Crucially, however, the lessons only selected a few choice verses from the book. So now not only were the acrostic letters alienated by language, but their serial completeness was lost too.

Instead, the letters became the ruined pillars of an old poetic structure. And it seems this very opaqueness, this gothic archaism, became an inspiration to composers. As David notes, from early chant settings to the first polyphonic settings in the late 15th century, you often find the Hebrew letters are given special melismatic elaboration, like the ornate first letters on an illuminated medieval manuscript.

The 16th century saw a huge number of Lamentations settings, including those by Lassus, Victoria and Palestrina. Publishers even started to print compilation books of them. As the Reformation and various counter-Reformations swept Europe, with appalling levels of violence, perhaps this desolate text resonated for good reason.

It’s particularly interesting that while reformers debated the use of vernacular language in sacred music, and the appropriate simplicity for the dignity of worship, these Hebrew letters provided the opposite: a moment where composers could step beyond literal meaning, and experiment in pure sound, touched with a mystical ancient authority.

Looking again at the words on my edition, I realised that something else was odd. The first line is an announcement: that what follows are the lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah. Then, after polyphonic repetition, comes ‘Aleph’.

I was amazed. Those first two beautiful sections – which sound so expressive of lamentation – are effectively just titling! To get a sense of the strangeness: imagine a pop singer’s introduction ‘this next one’s from my new album’, only those are the opening lyrics of the song itself.

It is a remarkable framing device, and it sets the Old Testament text at a distance. It is as if Jeremiah’s world is having to be hauled up with effort, across a gap of two thousand years.

Making this discovery has certainly enriched my understanding of the music. But what really interests me is how the process of the Hebrew letters losing their context has been duplicated, in my modern enjoyment of Tallis.

For all the years I’ve loved this music, the words have had the same opaqueness as the ancient acrostic. I knew the text had a religious meaning, but I didn’t need to understand the details. Because Tallis’ music gave me enough meaning in itself. 

Memorably, a lecturer at university once told me that it is only within living memory that you can consider yourself an educated European without learning any Latin. Well on that count, guilty as charged, I suppose. But the Lamentations offers a lesson in how religious, linguistic and musical meanings can evolve in surprising ways.

Now I can encounter Tallis at my leisure on recordings, hear him in secular concerts – even read about him in Fifty Shades Of Grey, should I feel inclined. He sounds more intuitively ‘of our time’, in my view, than a lot of music composed in the following centuries. And no doubt, the meanings of his beautiful music will continue to evolve too.

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Intermezzo no.2, op. 117, by Brahms.

Who could have guessed that 2020 would be the year of enforced domesticity? Well, here we are. Life in lockdown is harder for some than others. Living on the edge of a small town, I’m fortunate to have plenty of space for safe exercise. And as the streets assume an almost prelapsarian quietness, I also have some old technology to turn to: a piano.

Looking through my stash of sheet music, I found Brahms’ Three Intermezzi op. 117. No. 2 caught my eye, because the delicate arpeggios of its opening bars looked more like a Bach prelude than something from the nineteenth century.

An intermezzo seems appropriate for this strange in-between time, as we wait uneasily for life to somehow resume itself. There’s a fittingly pensive mood to this piece too – despite my first impressions, Bach’s old Lutheran certainties are absent. In Brahms’ world, wistfulness and self-doubt reign.

Much about this piece is remarkably tentative. Brahms is hardly famed for light textures, but for most of the work you won’t find even four notes struck together. The dynamic markings, for the most part, remain muted.

There is, however, an almost constant sense of movement. Swift arpeggios predominate, and the unusually microscopic time signature of 3/8 means that clouds of demisemiquavers darken the page, like arrows in the sky at Crécy.

Brahms reserves the longest, most sweeping arpeggios for moments of harmonic surprise or instability, as though he were an unsatisfied painter, washing away what came before. And while there is a contrasting theme with a more chordal texture – and wonderfully bittersweet it is too – even here he staggers the rhythm in the left hand.

Truth be told, I like playing this kind of music. I rarely sit down at the piano wanting to blitz the keyboard, nor am I much interested in stretching myself technically. In fact, I feel it’s with broken chords, of one kind or another, that the piano is at its most poetic. Sketching out harmonies with a sense of flow while picking out a melody, the decaying notes bleeding together – it’s how the instrument shines.

Difficulty in music is over-rated. When you’re taught in the classical tradition, you learn to make way for its demands, however exacting they may be. In hushed examination rooms and concert halls, the music comes first. It rules there. But in the amateur domestic sphere, music has to negotiate a shared space.

The funny thing is, when I play the piano I often find my foot has strayed to the una corda pedal without thinking, even when I’m alone. It seems I’ve learned to practice social distancing in music, to shrink myself away from cohabitants and neighbours, be they real or imagined.

The upright piano is a domesticated breed, but it’s still a muscular beast. I started learning on an electric Clavinova, which had a handy headphones socket, but none of the all-important touch you get with a mechanical action. When I began studying for my Grade 8 as a teenager, I was fortunate that my parents realised this would no longer do.

I remember visiting a piano shop with them, and my Dad’s unease when he heard the bright din of real mallets on strings. He was right to hesitate: British homes are neither large nor well insulated. Sound bulldozes through them. To prepare for the exam, I spent a year bashing out the sforzando chords of an angry Beethoven sonata. There’s a good reason why Für Elise is so popular.

I don’t remember any complaints, so I’m grateful for my family’s patience. But in any case, I’m not psychologically cut out for performance. With a lot of practice, I scraped a Distinction in the exam, which seems laughable now, because I hated the experience. Leaving the room was one of the few times in my life where I’ve made an immediate vow never to do something again. Pity my poor teacher, angling for me to get started on a Diploma.

Nowadays, fumbling through old scores is enough. I am lazy and rusty and rough-edged with the piano, and I’m fine with that. Alongside Brahms, I’m enjoying the company of Scarlatti, Byrd and John Ireland as quarantine companions. Although the strings have really started to pine for their tuner.

A month into lockdown, I can now make a decent hash of the Intermezzo. And as it turns out, it has a curious ending. That secondary chordal theme reappears, but the texture seizes up this time, stuck over a long held note in the bass. The tempo slows. The music’s defining fluidity has evaporated, and it becomes more forceful, as if protesting its new restriction.

Brahms beautifully works the theme to a sense of resignation, before the quiet final cadence. To await whatever comes next, whenever that might be.

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Music In Isolation

     By Peter Davison

The loss of live concerts is surely one of the saddest impacts of the current health crisis, and we should spare a thought for those freelance musicians who, even in the best of times, survive close to the breadline. True, there are some brave attempts to use on-line technology to keep performances going, but it is a poor substitute for hearing music in the living presence of others.

Yet in every crisis there is opportunity. Social isolation has made many reflect on the value of their personal space, the nature of our complex interdependencies and also what truly defines our shared culture. These are questions which will continue to be debated long after the crisis is over, but for now, those of us compelled into varying degrees of isolation have time on our hands; a chance to listen perhaps with new attentiveness to some of the vast treasury of recorded music currently available.

Depending on your perspective, you may wish to experience the full horror of biblical plagues told through the dramatic choral tableaux of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt (1739). Or, if isolation causes you outright despair, why not go deeper into your dark mood by listening to Rachmaninov’s brooding tone-poem The Isle of the Dead (1908). Based on Arnold Böcklin’s evocative Symbolist picture of that name, the music overwhelms us with waves of grief and apprehension.

Island of the Dead, Arnold Böcklin, Met Museum.

But nobody could be blamed for preferring to escape the gloom by imagining festive crowds once again running wild on Italy’s streets. Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture (1844) employs music from his rarely performed opera Benvenuto Cellini, including a dizzying saltarello derived from the scene where the carnival revellers pelt Cellini’s love-rival with flour pellets.

Completists might need a sufficiently Herculean challenge to fill the hours. Try exploring large boxsets such as Bach’s Church Cantatas. There are 193 sacred works, providing the full gamut of spiritual responses, from melancholy introspection to joyful celebration. Alternatively, there are Haydn’s symphonies, all 104 of them, which trace the development of this good-humoured and devoutly religious composer across four decades.

The later works fizz with wit and musical invention in the mature Classical style, but those written in the 1760s and 70s, during his ‘Storm and Stress’ period, capture a real sense of unease. One of these, his ‘Farewell’ Symphony No.45 is famous for the disappearing-act of its musicians during the work’s finale; a gesture which has acquired some irony in the current crisis. Yet it is the symphony’s first movement, full of minor-key tension and fatefulness, that leaves the stronger impression.

Franz Joseph Haydn, attributed to Mather Brown. The Royal Society of Musicians of Great Britain.

When the future is uncertain, Gustav Mahler seems always to point us towards transcendence. The Adagio finale of his Ninth Symphony (1909) contrasts prayerful pleading with passages of mystical detachment. A soul-piercing high clarinet rises above a rootless melody in the lower strings, creating a vast inner space, unbridgeable by any earthly power. At the movement’s climax, Mahler asserts a Nietzschean ‘yes’ to life, before everything is gradually let go. Tormented memories of a dead child diminish to whispered longing, as former heroic struggles ebb away to stillness.

For some, the lack of work pressure, traffic and aeroplane noise has allowed them to notice the arrival of spring as never before. They will find plenty of music to deepen their experience. Delius’s On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring (1912) idealises nature with a warm, sensual glow. No hint of nasty viruses here, just the unalloyed pleasure of lush orchestral sounds evoking a delightful reverie. On the other hand, Frank Bridge’s tone poem, Enter Spring (1926) begins closer to the restlessness of our own times. At first everything is unstable and dissonant, but renewal eventually arrives in vigorous music which causes the sap to rise.

For those seeking spiritual peace and joy, I can recommend the unique sound world of Einojuhani Rautavarra’s Symphony No.7, ‘The Angel of Light’ (1994). Rautavarra died in 2016, leaving a substantial body of approachably lyrical pieces. Having rejected serialism, the composer developed an expressive post-modern style, growing ever freer in his exploration of mystical subjects.

His Seventh Symphony has an organic quality that moves seamlessly between states of serenity and ecstasy. Nature is transfigured by the creative imagination into the dynamic play of spirit. Another composer capable of reaching the heights of spiritual serenity is George Lloyd, whose Twelfth and final symphony (1989) is an old man’s acceptance of himself and the world around him. There is no sense of sorry valediction here, more the anticipation of a celestial world that lies ahead.

Richard Wagner always has something to say about the irreconcilable tensions of our modern world.  His music drama The Mastersingers of Nuremberg (1867) is particularly rich in insights, placing music at the centre of social cohesion. The cobbler, Hans Sachs, is a poet-philosopher who complains that in the outside world, ‘Alles ist Wahn’ all is delusion.

An engraving of Hans Sachs, New York Public Library.

During the sombre Prelude to Act 3, Sachs ponders the human condition accompanied by music of profound nobility and inwardness, before steering matters invisibly to their proper outcome. The opera’s crowd scenes, noisily exuberant and occasionally riotous, remind us what it means to be social creatures. In this instance, the disease to be defeated is the cynical ambition and pedantic criticism of Sixtus Beckmesser, who is universally despised. Meanwhile Sachs’s selfless wisdom is honoured by all.

In these extraordinary times, good music can be a vital source of spiritual consolation, providing a glue which binds us together even in our isolation. So often we take our musical culture for granted, because much of it can be accessed at the click of a mouse. Yet the lost pleasures of live music should make it self-evident that we feel more complete when we share beautiful experiences in the presence of others. Music surely tells us that we are more than victims of nature’s whims, and that our search for meaning amidst the mysterious grandeur of the cosmos will not be in vain.

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

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Turbulent Landscapes

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, by J.M.W Turner. Wikimedia Commons.

The composer Thea Musgrave was born in Edinburgh in 1928. Her prolific output spans over half a century, and as the list of works on her website shows, she continues to compose into her nineties.

I’ve recently been exploring some of Musgrave’s recorded instrumental music. Her online catalogue is headed by a quotation from a critic who praised the ‘Straussian depth and complexity’ of her orchestration. But the first piece that grabbed me was something much leaner.

Green, composed for strings in 2014, begins with what sounds almost like Baroque counterpoint, which then becomes progressively more beset by disruptive dissonance. 

In interviews and published comments, it’s interesting how Musgrave talks about her music in dramatic terms. She made a name for herself in her early career with a number of so-called ‘dramatic-abstract’ works. These use instrumental set-ups in novel ways: for instance, in her 1968 clarinet concerto, the soloist becomes like an actor, wandering between small instrument groups who are set against the orchestra.

Even without such theatrics, Musgrave sometimes gives instrumentalists specific ‘characters’ to play. In Loch Ness (2012), the orchestra’s tuba becomes the eponymous monster. This kind of conception can even apply to chamber works. See how she describes the 2008 piece Cantilena which shares much of the finely-drawn elegance of Green:

An outsider [the oboe] joins the group [a string trio] and adds to their dialogue. At first the newcomer is treated with a mixture of suspicion and agitation, but eventually is made welcome.

In Green, the presence of a deep, rogue tremolo F creeps into the E-major music of the first section, and unleashes the work’s subsequent drama. In an interview about the piece, Musgrave recalled her student composer days, and the lasting importance for her of Donald Tovey’s ideas about structural harmonic planning.

This fact might not always leap out at you while listening to her music, particularly the more dissonant works. Much more apparent, however, is the craft with which she constructs textures, no doubt honed in her lessons with the famously exacting Nadia Boulanger. 

I was intrigued to notice that quite a few of Musgrave’s compositions suggest visual images and colours. Alongside Green, there is a similarly lithe piece for strings, Aurora (1999), its title taken from a line in A Midsummer Night’s Dream about the coming of dawn. More specific is 2003’s Turbulent Landscapes, which is programmed around a series of paintings by Turner. Her visual stimulants are not always so highbrow: the tone poem Phoenix Rising only took flight after Musgrave saw a coffee shop sign in Virginia.

I think ‘turbulent landscapes’ could serve as a decent description of Musgrave’s overall approach to the orchestra – both in terms of its energy and complexity, and how she creates washes of sound, from the pale and ethereal to the downright murky. Among her impressionistic palette, a impulse for rapid upward flourishes sticks out – it runs through the more delicate textures of Green and Cantilena too.

For her 1990 tone poem Rainbow, Musgrave enriched the orchestral colour spectrum with the addition of a synthesiser. But the cutesy title is misleading. ‘In nature, of course, a rainbow heralds the end of a storm’, she casually tells us – and after a briefly shimmering opening, a savage tempest breaks across the orchestra.

When the promised respite arrives, the glowing arc mysteriously reveals itself as a quiet melody on synthesiser, flute and solo violin, backed by ethereal string chords. Rainbow then culminates in a blaze of sunlight, with rippling waves of tuned percussion as the brass section bellows out a ‘chorale of thanksgiving’.

It’s worth remembering that to see a rainbow, you have to stand with your back to the sun. Look towards the retreating gloom. Those bright colours are only refracted back at you from the Straussian depths, the Turnerian turbulence. 

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Hiding In Plain Sight

Part of the manuscript of The Wreck of the Hesperus  by Hamish MacCunn.

By Richard Laing

Full many a gem of purest ray serene / The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear. – Thomas Gray

Every so often a fanfare in the press announces the discovery of a long-lost or hitherto unknown fragment of music by a famous composer. Libraries, attics and floorboards occasionally give up their treasures and for a brief time there is general rejoicing in the upper echelons of the classical music world. Yet these discoveries, exciting as they may be, are insignificant next to the plethora of incredible music hiding in plain sight.

Regular readers of these pages will have enjoyed Kate Romano’s article On Neglected Music, noting the injustice of so many wonderful composers failing to find performances or audiences for their work, and the imperative to ‘keep an impossibly huge expanse of music alive and vibrant.’ As Romano makes clear, performers and promoters have a responsibility here, as do audiences.

Indeed, to my mind, the preservation and expansion of the repertoire requires a collaboration between performer and audience. Performers lucky enough to work together regularly can, over the course of several seasons, introduce unfamiliar, ‘neglected’ or new music to an audience in such a way that a level of trust is established, and eventually many concert-goers look forward to such programming rather than fearing it. Sadly, the temptation to focus on ticket sales makes this kind of adventurous, long-term programming rare.

Not only do musicians have a responsibility to search out new music, commissioning and championing contemporary composers, but we must also stay curious about music of the past, and actively fight against the whims of fashion. A couple of years ago I was browsing the shelves of music in my father’s music room in Yorkshire, looking for music suitable to use as sight-reading for choral singers. Scores of orchestral and vocal music, mostly collected in the 1960s, have lain relatively undisturbed in this study for twenty years, due to their owner’s poor health.

Here were the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, the ubiquitous Italian Songs and Arias, the entire oeuvre of Wagner, and a healthy selection of Cole Porter, but also a pile of ancient Novello vocal scores of cantatas and oratorios that I had never heard of. One jumped out at me, almost literally: The Wreck of the Hesperus by Hamish MacCunn.

Like just about everyone else, I knew one piece by MacCunn and one piece only, for The Land of the Mountain and the Flood is a frequent visitor to the concert hall, a TV theme tune from my parents’ generation, and can be heard on a certain Classical music radio station pretty much daily, or so it seems. Playing through MacCunn’s cantata at the piano I was hooked from the first bars; the sweep of the music was perfectly suited to the melodrama of Longfellow’s poem, and the sensitivity of MacCunn’s word-setting moved me to tears. This was clearly a work which deserved, or even demanded, performance.

And yet, as I soon discovered, none of my colleagues had ever heard of it either, and the score had been out of print for years. I conducted a couple of performances with piano, which served to confirm my belief that singers and audiences would enjoy it immensely, though of course there were a couple of dissenters (like Dwight Macdonald, I distrust any work which is universally liked).

Subsequently I learned from Dr Jane Mallinson, an expert on MacCunn, that The Wreck had only been performed by two other groups since 1930, and then, apparently, only with organ, rather than with the large orchestra for which the piece was written. I was able to obtain a copy of the manuscript full score, held at the Royal College of Music, and set about reconstructing the orchestral parts. This week, the 180 singers of the Nottingham Harmonic Choir, with the Orchestra da Camera, will be mounting a performance of The Wreck of the Hesperus in Nottingham’s Albert Hall.

Persuading people to come to hear this wonderful work, however, is more difficult. Nottingham Harmonic is a choir which sells 1,000 tickets for its annual Messiah performances, and around 2,500 tickets for its carol concerts every December, but ticket sales for this nautically-themed concert are barely into three figures.

I know that The Wreck of the Hesperus is a piece people will love once they hear it, but getting them into the building to experience something new is a challenge. Of course, we utilise the usual tricks – adding popular works into the programme, advertising on radio and in print, writing blog posts, and promoting the concert on social media, but ticket sales remain stubbornly low.

Perhaps the mistake is to include two unknown works rather than just one – for this concert also features Herbert Howells’s extraordinary Sir Patrick Spens, which vanished from concert halls in 1930, the same year as The Wreck of the Hesperus, before being unearthed by Paul Spicer (again, in the library of the Royal College of Music) in 2006. Or we could just blame Coronavirus.

Yet, pace my choir’s treasurer, a largely empty concert hall is not a complete disaster, as long as it does not become a regular occurrence. An amateur choir (or orchestra) exists not only for the audience, but for its members; indeed, one could argue that it exists primarily for those that come to make music every week. The members are a major source of the group’s income. Much of the purpose and pleasure of amateur music-making is the rehearsal process; the concert is the proverbial icing on the cake. Thus amateur groups are more able than professional groups (who have less need to cater for the desires of the performers) to programme new and unfamiliar music, and given this ability perhaps have a responsibility to do so.

As each year goes by, the pieces guaranteed to fill a concert hall seem to become fewer (and, it could be argued, their quality diminishes, but that is perhaps an argument for another blog discussion). If we do not strive constantly to expand it, concert repertoire will shrink until it consists solely of works which are on a certain list determined by a popular vote.

As performers we have a duty to be curious. Had I not stumbled on the tatty old score of The Wreck of the Hesperus that afternoon in Yorkshire, the music would surely still be languishing like Thomas Gray’s gem, unexperienced and unappreciated. How many other wonders are sitting on shelves, out of print and out fashion, but hiding in plain sight, waiting for rediscovery?

Nottingham Harmonic Choir and the Orchestra da Camera and bass-baritone James Oldfield will be performing Hamish MacCunn’s The Wreck of the Hesperus and Herbert Howells’s Sir Patrick Spens, together with music by Mendelssohn, Stanford and Britten, at Nottingham’s Albert Hall on Saturday 21st March at 7.30pm. Tickets are available from the Royal Concert Hall Box Office.

Richard Laing is a conductor, violinist and writer. His directs choirs in Nottingham, Leicester and Somerset, and is Principal Guest Conductor of Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, Associate Conductor of Chandos Symphony Orchestra, and a guest Principal player with the English Symphony Orchestra. His articles and reviews are regularly published in The Wagner Journal and Wagner News.

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The Second Teacher

Scholars at an Abbasid Library. Wikimedia Commons.

It was while reading Karen Armstrong’s History Of God that I first came upon the name Abu Nasr al-Farabi. A Middle-Eastern polymath from the medieval ‘golden age’ of Islamic scholarship, al-Farabi held a striking view of God that had as much to do with Aristotle and Plato as it did the Quran. When Armstrong mentioned he was also a musician, I was intrigued to find out more.

As it turns out, al-Farabi wrote on a vast array of subjects – from logic, to metaphysics, politics, and astrology. But he has also been described as ‘probably the greatest writer on the theory of music during the Middle Ages’. Alongside several smaller treatises, this reputation principally rests on a magnum opus: the Great Book Of Music.

In al-Farabi’s story, translation is a key theme. His intellectual world was that of the Abbasid Caliphate – a time when Baghdad was home to ‘The House Of Wisdom’, a great centre of learning where scholarly texts were collected and translated into Arabic from Sanskrit, Persian and Greek. This revival of ancient knowledge goes some way to explain the fact that al-Farabi was often referred to as the ‘second teacher’ – the ‘first’ being Aristotle.

Aristotle teaching, illustrated c. 1220. Wikimedia Commons.

Sadly, as Ian Richard Netton writes in Al-Farabi And His School, it’s practically impossible to construct a reliable biography of the man. Sources about him are suspect and often tend towards the legendary. Netton describes ‘a paradigm of an antinomian scholar-gypsy’ in some early portrayals: al-Farabi appears as an otherworldly figure, a nomadic teacher who speaks over seventy languages, and who wears ascetic Sufi clothing as if to illustrate his commitment to a life of the mind.

Such caveats notwithstanding, it’s thought that al-Farabi was born around 870. There is debate about whether he was Turkic or Persian, but either way he seems to have travelled well. We learn that he came to Baghdad, where he studied logic. He may have visited Egypt, and a period allegedly spent as a gardener in Damascus only helps to cultivate the image of a quiet sage.

But perhaps al-Farabi’s most celebrated association was the generous patronage he received from the ruler of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla. He was known as a great patron of poets and scholars, and al-Farabi would have been a valuable addition to a crucial part of the elite culture at this time: the majlis.

The court of Sayf Al-Dawla, from a history by John Skylitzes. Wikimedia Commons.

Meaning ‘council’ or ‘gathering’, a majlis was an occasion which could include banquets of food and wine, alongside debates and music. And one intriguing story about a majlis at al-Dawla’s court, written several centuries after al-Farabi’s death, shows the scholar’s enduring reputation for musicianship. Here he appears almost as a magician:

[Al-Farabi] then drew from his waist a leather bag, opened it and drew from it some reeds, which he put together. Then he played on them, whereupon all who were at the majlis laughed. Then he took them to pieces and put them together another way, and when he played on them, everyone in the majlis cried. Then he took them to pieces again, put them together differently, played on them and everyone in the majlis, even the doorkeeper, fell asleep. And al-Farabi went out.

While we can certainly take this tale with a pinch of salt, it does tell us something genuine about music theory in his time: instruments were seen as a tool for demonstration, and they revealed systematically different results.

In fact, Majid Fakhry has described al-Farabi as ‘the first system-builder in Arab-Islamic thought’. His Great Book of Music is particularly valuable for its immensely detailed categorisations. George Sawa has taken the deep dive and transcribed al-Farabi’s rhythmic modes, his tone system, and the large number of ornamental techniques laid out in this massive volume.

These categorisations could be quite poetic. A melody, he tells us, contains two types of notes: the ‘warp and woof in a cloth’, and its ‘decorative dyes and fringes’. Rhythmic ornamentations are compared to forms of Arabic grammar, while an intriguing series of timbral ornamentations for the voice are grouped by their likeness to human passions and tactile sensations.

The oud – with which the European lute shares a common ancestor – was al-Farabi’s examplar instrument for theory, and in the Great Book he uses its fret positions as the basis for tonal discussion. But in musical practice, he was clear that instruments should take a subservient role. A melody could only be ‘complete’, in his view, when sung words were attached. Only then could music spur the listener to virtuous thoughts and actions.

An oud illustration from al-Farabi’s Great Book Of Music. Source.

This idea may reflect the importance of poetry and song in Abbasid culture. But as Yaron Klein has described in a doctoral thesis, translation takes on a new guise here too.

Al-Farabi believed that some sounds could evoke their own ideas or ‘imaginings’. When these sounds are combined with the correct words in a song, he argued, they convey meaning more effectively than the words alone – what’s more, they can even clarify instances where a poet uses deliberate ambiguity. Fascinatingly, Klein notes that Arab musicians today still use the term tarjama translation’ to refer to short instrumental filler passages which imitate a vocal phrase.

In another, later translation movement, intellectuals like al-Farabi helped to pave the way for the European Renaissance. In the twelfth century, scholars flocked to Toledo in Spain, where a previously long period of Muslim rule had bequeathed libraries of Arabic texts which now lay ripe for discovery. A school of Latin translation grew here, through which the achievements of the Islamic golden age would percolate into Europe. Crucially, this also enabled the discovery of many works translated from Greek sources that were previously unknown in the west, among them writings by the so-called ‘first teacher’: Aristotle.

It seems al-Farabi’s Great Book Of Music was never translated into Latin, but as Don M. Randel has written, we know his Classification Of The Sciences was, and furthermore, it had an important influence on European music theory.

A illustration of al-Farabi, Latinised as Alpharabius, in the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Wikimedia Commons.

In this work, al-Farabi divided the ‘science’ of music into ‘practical’ and ‘theoretical’ categories. While this may seem obvious today, it challenged the prevailing Pythagorean scheme, inherited from Boethius, in which musica mundana (music of the heavenly spheres) and musica humana (music of the body) sat alongside the audible music created by people. As Randel puts it:

His classifications of music as either theoretical or practical […] provided a striking model for Latin writers, and his insistence on demonstrations and on the conformity of theory and practice directly and indirectly prepared the way for a flowering of a new kind of music theory.

As Klein reminds us, there were profound implications to this. Music might no longer be ‘an audible way of representing the mathematical order of the cosmos’, but instead ‘a phenomenon worthy of studying in and of itself’. This is just one of the ways in which al-Farabi seems relatably modern. In the Great Book, he also outlines a theory of the evolution of music – from the invention of basic chants to the development of instruments – which still reads as highly plausible.

A measure of al-Farabi’s continued fame: he has a pharmacy named after him on London’s Edgware Road.

But al-Farabi was also, of course, a man of his time. With his seemingly insatiable zest for categorisation, Netton argues that his life represents ‘a striving for order against a background of instability and change’. The Abbasid Caliphate had passed the peak of its power, and cracks were appearing as various regions assumed greater autonomy.

Above all else, al-Farabi prized reasoning. His idea of God was a ‘First Cause’ from which emanated ten ‘intellects’. The last of these – the ‘active intellect’ – gave the soul its rational faculties, and this alone could survive the body after death. Furthermore, Armstrong explains in her History of God that while al-Farabi saw religion as a pragmatic path for society, it was nonetheless inferior to pure reasoning. Philosophy was ‘a superior way of understanding truths which the prophets had expressed in a poetic, metaphorical way, in order to appeal to the people’.

This polymath’s great achievements remind us of the importance of translation. But there is one more yet to come. I was surprised to find out that a complete English edition of The Great Book Of Music does not yet exist. However, I am pleased to read that Professor Alison Laywine of McGill University is preparing one. So while his life may remain the stuff of legend, a thousand years on from his death, I hope more people will soon be able to step into al-Farabi’s musical world – in all its fascinating detail.

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Alphonse Mucha: Art, Music And Spirituality.

Spring from The Seasons, 1896. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

     By Peter Davison

When the name of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) is mentioned, many claim to know nothing about him. Yet point to a piece of his work, and almost everyone quickly recognises its iconic features.

Mucha was one of the fathers of Art Nouveau and the creator of a poster-style that is still imitated today. There are of course many other reasons to value the work of this formidable creative personality. While Mucha first made his name in Paris in the 1890s, he remains to this day the national artist of the Czech Republic. The range and depth of his work extends well beyond ornament, advertising and nationalism. He was a symbolist and a mystic, who absorbed many of the radical new ideas of his day.

Mucha’s path to prominence in the visual arts was far from straightforward, and he could easily have become a musician. As a child he was, for several years, a chorister at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno, the capital of Moravia. It was here that he first met the composer Leos Janáček, then a choral conductor and teacher working in the city. Young Alphonse was also at this time profoundly impressed by the atmosphere generated by the vaulted Baroque architecture and stained glass of the cathedral, as well as the plainchant and incense associated with the Catholic liturgy that filled his daily routine.

For me the notions of painting, going to church and music are so closely knit that often I cannot decide whether I like church for its music or music for its place in the mystery which it accompanies.

Mucha would later attempt to recreate this potent fusion of music, art, aroma and architecture in his Paris studio. It was arranged like a chapel with an array of screens and drapes, the smell of incense hanging in the air and a harmonium near to hand which Mucha knew how to play. He often appeared like a priestly figure engaged in a mystical rite as he painted.

Alphonse Mucha in his studio, rue du Val-de-Grâce, Paris, c.1900. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

If this seems rather theatrical, we should not be surprised, because Mucha had worked for two years in Vienna for a company making stage-sets. Among the company’s many clients were Vienna’s famous Ringtheater and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Mucha admired the power of theatre to weave a magical influence upon its audience, bringing together many creative elements in the manner of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

Alphonse Mucha had moved to Paris in 1887 to pursue his studies. It was then a melting-pot of innovative thinking about art, spirituality and the destiny of humanity. Many believed that mankind was on the verge of a spiritual revolution and the arts would play a crucial role in this transformation. This creative fervour had been largely stirred up by Wagner’s powerful music-dramas and the Symbolist poetry of Baudelaire. Among Mucha’s close circle were the composer Frederick Delius, the painter Paul Gaugin and the experimental Swedish dramatist August Strindberg.

All were strongly influenced by the Symbolist creed which proclaimed that art should be atmospheric not realistic, symbolic rather than literal in meaning. Theosophy had also taken root in France through the arcane writings of Madame Blavatsky, encouraging Mucha to experiment with Spiritualism and other esoteric practices. Mucha also became a Freemason in 1891 which, in those days, was a closed religious brotherhood characterised by its use of archaic symbols and rituals. From these varied sources, Mucha developed a unique spiritual outlook, grafting unorthodox beliefs onto his Catholic background.

Alphonse Mucha self-portrait, Prague, 1930s. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

From Theosophy Mucha learned that the world was the creation of Universal Mind, often described as the ‘world soul’. He believed this divine presence to be feminine, and it is represented in his many delightful images of young women embodying health, beauty and pure Nature. Their curvilinear forms express ideal beauty which has the power able to raise humanity to higher spiritual planes. Mucha observed:

Visible nature, seen through our eyes, surrounds us with rich and harmonious forms. The marvellous poem of the human body, those of animals, and the music of lines and colours emanating from flowers, leaves and fruits are the most obvious teachers of our eyes and taste.

Mucha’s most profound expression of his ‘new age’ spirituality is Le Pater (1899); a book of elaborately illuminated pages depicting The Lord’s Prayer including his own unique interpretation of the text. In Le Pater, God is not a moral force but nourishes the human soul; a more maternal role than is customarily found in Christian belief. Many of Le Pater’s ornate symbols are derived from Freemasonry and Mucha’s own compendium of Art Nouveau motifs based on leaves, flowers and abstract forms. The pictorial element is full of shadowy images of humanity’s struggle to reach the divine, as well as the invisible forces that control human existence.

Le Pater (1899), Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

In Symbolist art and Theosophy Mucha also found confirmation that the human imagination responds well to multiple sensory stimulus, as he had witnessed in Brno Cathedral and the theatres of Vienna in his younger days. Theosophists argued that human emotions could be expressed as sound or light, because they originated from the same vibrational source. Here Mucha found a direct link between music and the visual arts. In his aesthetics, sensuality and spirituality are one. Music, theatre and the visual arts can represent the ultimate transcendent unity of all things through symbols that directly address the unconscious mind.

My own fascination with Mucha and his circle owes a lot to serendipity. In the Summer of 2017, I found myself at an exhibition of his work in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. There was the full range of his oeuvres, from his commercial posters to the magnificent dramatic scenes of his Slav Epic. Towards the end of the exhibition, some recorded music for flute and piano was playing discretely in the background. I tried to place it. Something by Ravel perhaps, or was it more Eastern European? It had a lilting, lyrical quality. The only clue to its origin was a small plaque stating that the music was by Geraldine Mucha. Was this Mucha’s daughter, wife or some other relative?

Further research revealed that Geraldine Mucha (1917-2012) was Alphonse’s daughter-in-law, the second wife of his son Jiří. Her maiden name was Thomson and, although born in London, her ancestry was Scottish. She had studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music, taking lessons from Sir Arnold Bax and the flute-playing William Alwyn among others.

Geraldine Mucha. Reproduced by kind permission of Mucha Foundation © Mucha Trust 2020

At this point in the story, I contacted a flautist friend, Emily Beynon, and asked her if she knew the piece, which was called Naše Cesta – ‘Our Journey’. Emily was eager to find out more about a possible new addition to the flute repertoire, so she contacted the Mucha Foundation, acquiring a copy of the work’s hand-written original. The piece had been completed in 2008, but never formally published, although it had been performed by its dedicatee, the principal piccolo of the Czech Philharmonic, Jan Machat.

The question then was how to present this little-known music to the public? We came up with a programme exploring cultural connections between Paris and Prague; a sequence which would be performed against a backdrop sequencing the full range of Alphonse Mucha’s artwork. The project was called The Colour of Music, and it aimed to illustrate the relationship between music and the visual arts, including the phenomenon of synaesthesia – the ability to see colour while composing or listening to music. The concert was introduced by Mucha’s grandson John, who runs the Mucha Foundation and lives in the UK.

So it was that his mother Geraldine’s Naše Cesta received its UK premiere in Manchester on 6 October 2018, alongside works by Fauré, Debussy, Janáček and Martinů. Emily went on to edit the manuscript assisted by her accompanist Andrew West, and the work was eventually published in the summer of 2019 by Edizioni Riverberi Sonori. Our journey, to coin a phrase, had been from a haunting snippet of music heard in Liverpool to something that could be held in the hand and which was available to a wide public.

Geraldine‘s husband Jiří was neither a painter nor a musician, but he did spend time in Paris where he was a close friend of the Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů. Jiří provided the libretto for his Field Mass, which was a tribute to Czechs fighting for France during the Second World War. Jiří’s first wife was Vítězslava Kaprálová, also a prodigiously talented composer who had been Martinů’s pupil and lover. She died in 1940 of a mysterious illness just two months into her marriage. To bring this story full circle, during the war, Jiří Mucha was compelled to live in Britain and this is how he met Geraldine Thomson. The ageing Alphonse meanwhile had remained in Prague, where his status as national artist posed a threat to the Nazis. They did not imprison him, but he died in July 1939 after an intense interrogation by the Gestapo.

Since those awful times, subsequent generations of the Mucha family have gradually restored what was lost. Jiří and Geraldine returned to Prague in 1945, where Jiří eventually became a successful novelist and a champion of his father’s work. Geraldine was a loyal wife, who struggled to obtain Jiří’s release from jail in 1954, after he was accused by the Communist regime of spying. But she also kept composing, even after Jiří’s death in 1991.

Several of her pieces have now been recorded, and her work is waiting to be discovered by a wider public who will be beguiled by her hybrid musical style. Her Scottish and Czech backgrounds blend seamlessly in folk-like rhythms and attractive melodies, while her harmony encompasses Ravelian sensuality and occasional spiky Bartokian dissonance. What her music lacks in grand ambition is more than compensated by her amiability and natural lyricism.

I feel a special gratitude to Alphonse and the wider Mucha clan, because of a chance occurrence in a Liverpool Art Gallery in 2017. One thing led to another, unlocking a fascinating world of historical and creative significance. Some elements of the concert programme which Emily Beynon and Andrew West performed in Manchester in 2018, including Naše Cesta, will be played again in a recital at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 2 February 2020. John Mucha will be there once more to say a few words about his illustrious forbears. Unsurprisingly, the concert is sold out, but please do explore the rich heritage of the Mucha family via the Foundation’s excellent website and, if you are a flautist, why not add Geraldine Mucha’s charming piece to your repertoire?

Peter Davison is a cultural commentator, concert programmer and musicologist who was Artistic Consultant to Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall from 1996 to 2018.

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Gaia Theory

The Earth photographed by Apollo 8, 1968. Wikimedia Commons.

In 2008, the composer Jonathan Dove was invited to take part in Cape Farewell – a trip to the Arctic with the aim of allowing various creative types to witness the rapid effects of global warming. As he explained in an interview with Kate Molleson, it was organised in the hope that artists might be able to communicate something to the public that climate scientists, increasingly alarmed but habitually ignored, could not.

The experience informed a number of his subsequent works. In 2014, Dove turned his creative attention to the scientist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Hypothesis’. First developed in the 1970s with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Gaia posits that our planet operates like an enormous self-regulating organism, which maintains near-optimal conditions for life. Named after an ancient Greek deity of the Earth, the hippyish flavour of this influential idea has brought it attention from environmentalists outside the scientific community, and attracted criticism within it too.

James Lovelock in 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

In responding to what he saw on Cape Farewell, Dove wanted to avoid ‘finger-wagging’ – which can spell doom for any artist. In particular he was attracted to Lovelock’s remarks that the Earth’s living systems are a kind of dance, and his Gaia Theory for symphony orchestra treats this optimistic hypothesis with bright colour and rhythmic vitality. Rather than warn us directly about the degradation of the world, this work seems to encourage a child-like excitement and wonder at the magnificence of our planet, the only one in the solar system blessed with the dazzlingly complex phenomenon of life.

We begin, perhaps inevitably, with evolution. From the germ of a chirping woodwind idea, Dove builds up layers which very quickly grow into a pulsing complex of sound. But it is not complicated to listen to – this music falls easily on the ear, with a Technicolor splendour that brings to mind a very different planet: Holst’s Jupiter. Its slabs of interacting parts don’t develop so much as suddenly crack and shift, like geological eras.

In the second movement this energy evaporates, revealing an angelic paradise – all sustained strings, hovering woodwinds and twinkling tuned percussion. It is a wonderland in which we gaze around and marvel, but nothing comes to the foreground strongly enough to dominate our attention. We are left only with quiet attentiveness. Everything matters.

The third movement brings back the intensity of the first, but introduces surprising elements. Low piano riffs and a hi-hat groove move us into jazz territory. Gaia has become a kind of cosmic jam session – unpredictable, whimsical, even fun. Only at the very end do we encounter an alarming note, when the culmination of a full orchestral climax accelerates ominously, before dramatically breaking off.

In the few years since it was composed, Gaia Theory has already been recorded twice. But in the same period, the direness of the planetary crisis has established itself more clearly in the public consciousness.

In choosing to focus on the Gaia Hypothesis, Dove has created a disarmingly direct celebration of the living systems which we are damaging at such alarming speed. Some may find this choice a worthwhile reminder of the awesomeness of nature, something that can keep us mindful of the need for radical change. Others might feel that – the risk of ‘finger-wagging’ notwithstanding – it’s no longer artistically tenable to tackle this kind of topic in a way that side-steps the inherent sadness, anger and dread of our planetary crisis.

Either way, Lovelock’s idea is much grander in sweep than the timescales of human civilisations, which are to the history of life on Earth an almost infinitesimally recent development. Even if global warming accelerates humanity towards a mass extinction event – which has happened to this planet before – in the comparative blink of its ancient eye, life on Earth will have reinvented itself. Small comfort it may be, but one way or another the dance will go on.

Listen to Gaia Theory recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Josep Pons or the BBC Philharmonic with Timothy Redmond.

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George Lloyd: Myths And Misconceptions

George Lloyd at the Lyceum Theatre in 1935, conducting his opera Iernin with The New English Opera Company. Picture shared with kind permission of William Lloyd.

     By Peter Davison

About a year ago, I was asked by William Lloyd, nephew of the Cornish composer George Lloyd (1913-98) to write an extended essay re-evaluating his uncle’s music. William and his wife Alison have run the George Lloyd Society, its extensive library and archive for many years. At times, it has been a thankless task, because interest in George Lloyd has waned since his death in 1998, although it revived briefly in 2013 for his centenary. That year, Lloyd’s music featured at the last night of the Proms, which included a performance of his HMS Trinidad March, but this moment of international prominence proved little more than a flash in the pan. Such opportunities only serve to amplify frustration; so close and yet so far!

Perhaps this feeling of mild desperation persuaded William to engage me. He knew I would be sympathetic, even if I was largely ignorant of George Lloyd’s considerable body of work. I knew there were symphonies but was surprised to learn that there were twelve of them. There were also concertos – four for piano, two for violin and one for cello. In addition, there were three operas, several grand choral works, music for brass band, a clutch of tone poems and various chamber and solo piano works. I left the archive one day, burdened with a weighty box of scores and over twenty CDs, and began working my way through George Lloyd’s seven decades of output.

What I noticed, as I set about this Herculean task, was that it was hard to listen to this music without its historical baggage. I found that, as someone with two music degrees and thirty-five years of experience programming public concerts, listening to Lloyd’s music was, at times, an assault on all my assumptions about how twentieth century music should sound.

My impression of Lloyd, prior to this immersive exploration of his work, was of a fluent but predictable tunesmith in the mould of Eric Coates. Like every half-baked notion, it was easy to find support for it. In the 1980s, when a BBC producer approached the then Director of Radio 3, John Drummond, about performing George Lloyd’s music at the Proms, the alleged response was ‘over my dead body’. In his eyes, Lloyd represented everything modernism was meant to oppose; populism, heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality and romantic clichés.

The story of George Lloyd’s life equally threw spanners in the works. He was no ordinary talent, but an acclaimed prodigy and war hero. Born in Cornwall in 1913, Lloyd wrote and conducted his first opera Iernin aged 21, establishing himself as a national figure hailed by Vaughan Williams, Thomas Beecham and John Ireland. But Lloyd sacrificed his promising career to join the Royal Marines during the Second World War, serving on the Arctic convoys, until a terrible accident in 1942 left him seriously injured. It was thought he would never recover, but his wife Nancy had other ideas. She took charge, using unorthodox healing techniques such as hypnotherapy, so that Lloyd recovered sufficiently to write two mighty symphonies; the Fourth and Fifth.

Just after the War, Lloyd found the BBC less receptive to his work. This and his fragile health persuaded him to retreat from musical life. He moved to Dorset to grow mushrooms and carnations for over twenty years. Among his supporters in those fallow times was the pianist, John Ogdon, who in 1962 persuaded Charles Groves and the Liverpool Philharmonic to perform Lloyd’s First Piano Concerto; a taut one-movement work of tormented dissonance which was in many respects untypical of him.

In the early 1980s, Sir Edward Downes persuaded the BBC to drop their scepticism towards Lloyd, and he began performing the symphonies (and recording some of them) with the BBC Northern in Manchester. Then, in 1984, an American Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, scooped Lloyd up as Principal Conductor, commissioning two symphonies from him (the Eleventh and Twelfth). Now in his seventies, Lloyd, assisted by his nephew William, went on to record almost all his music on CD, using major professional orchestras and performers to ensure the highest standards. In this last phase of his life, Lloyd completed a sequence of ambitious works including his Symphonic Mass (1992) and a final touching Requiem (1998) for choir and organ.

But what of those myths and misconceptions? I had realised at an early stage what a good job my academic education had done to skew my judgement. I struggled to listen with a genuinely open mind. The intellect acted as a carping critic, but the heart responded on a more human level. If this music was so awful, why was I so moved by it? It had many of the characteristics attributed by its hostile critics, but could their premises be suspect? Perhaps the naïve, heartfelt lyricism of this music was not a curse after all. We live in an age of irony, obscuring complexity and scarcely concealed cynicism, and this music was not capable of any of these things. It was sincere and good-humoured, in general terms optimistic and generous, yet never facile or evasive of darker emotions.

It is true that some of Lloyd’s early symphonies are too close to their models which are found in Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. We hear a young composer searching for his authentic voice, but this seems hardly cause to condemn it. His first opera Iernin (1934) astonishes with its dramatic and musical fluency. Here was a composer with a wonderful ear for orchestral colour, who owed much to Berlioz, Verdi and Tchaikovsky. While he clearly belonged to the symphonic tradition of Elgar, his provenance was more European than English, with little trace of the pastoralism associated with Vaughan Williams. Lloyd evidently defied categorisation. He was his own man, composing in his own way.

That fashion and musical politics left Lloyd behind after 1945 was a terrible misfortune. Some of the mud from that debacle still sticks, even if there is now a greater openness to music that is straightforwardly lyrical. For example, Lloyd’s Fourth Symphony (1946) received a critical mauling at the hands of the BBC’s assessors, yet it is always popular with audiences, providing an eloquent testimony of Lloyd’s wartime experiences. His symphonic slow movements are always masterful and memorable; sustained lyricism and formal balance combined to perfection, and the Lento Tranquillo of the Fourth is one of his best.

I discovered that Lloyd’s mature musical language is not regressive, but highly sophisticated and supple, encompassing complex modal harmonies, fluid chromaticism and even tone-rows. He had absorbed the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bartok, while his piano works, many of them written for John Ogdon, are far from exercises in picturesque Romanticism. An African Shrine (1966) is a tour de force of virtuosity and harmonic invention, marked by pounding rhythms and complex textures.

Photo shared with kind permission of William Lloyd. Copyright The George Lloyd Society.

In his later years, Lloyd continued to show great ambition and a willingness to explore the big questions of human existence, something most contemporary composers are reluctant to do. The Twelfth Symphony (1989) is a profound statement of an old man’s spiritual serenity and is filled by many hauntingly beautiful passages. The late choral works are also masterpieces. The Vigil of Venus (1980) has pagan vitality and exultant lyricism, while his exuberant Symphonic Mass (1992) was conceived to offer thanks for a good life, despite its traumas and frustrations. Lloyd was by his own confession an optimistic believer, although not a conventionally religious man. A Litany (1995) is another substantial choral work which sets a poem by John Donne, concluding with the plea:

That music of Thy promises,
Not threats in thunder may
Awaken us to our just offices;

Lloyd responds with a joyful chorus, reminding us that we should never underestimate the power of music to awaken in us ideals and new possibilities. In an age of fake news, social polarisation and terrorism, we surely need more of such music and the hope that it can provide.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator, who was formerly Artistic Consultant to The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. He was editor of ‘Reviving the Muse; Essays on Music after Modernism’ (Claridge Press 2001), and he is currently artistic adviser to the George Lloyd Society.

To read Peter’s full essay on George Lloyd, The Swing of the Pendulum – George Lloyd and the Crisis of Romanticism.

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