All posts by Corymbus

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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A Riddle Like The Cause

A wood-cut from The Confession Of Richard Brandon, executioner of Charles I, 1649.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

Shakespeare, The Merchant Of Venice

In 1597, the composer Thomas Morley wrote in A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musick that ‘the most principal and chiefest’ kind of instrumental music was the ‘fantasy’. This he defined as follows:

When a musician taketh a point at his pleasure and wresteth and turneth it as he list, making either much or little of it according as shall seem best in his own conceit. 

It might seem strange that so seemingly casual a description could be something ‘most principal and chiefest’. Yet the fantasy – or ‘fancy’ as it was also known – was a key force in an enormously fertile period for the cultivation of chamber music in England. It flourished into the second half of the 17th century, through one of the most troubled periods of English history – the Civil War.

Morley was a contemporary of Shakespeare who set his words to music. And it is through the Bard that we can shed light on the free aesthetic of the fantasy. As Erin Minear has noted, Morley’s definition resembles the titles of As You Like It and What You Will. She suggests that the Elizabethan notion of ‘fancy’ shares a Shakespearean ideal of ‘inventive and imaginative play’.

This was a golden age for English composition, and it is striking how often the worlds of words and music intertwined. Alongside the fantasy, a popular instrumental form was the In Nomine. This set the challenge of weaving counterpoint around a cantus firmus – a specific fragment from a choral mass setting by John Taverner from the 1520s.

Madrigals, with their expressive word-painting, were often played on viols too. The Italian repertoire was particularly influential in England – in his guide, Morley found space to complain of ‘our countrymen who will highly esteem whatsoever cometh from beyond the seas (and specially from Italy) be it never so simple, condemning that which is done at home though it be never so excellent’.

Such was the vogue for all things Italian, the composer John Cooper changed his name to the affectation ‘Coprario’. In the 1620s, it was he who began a tradition of putting a fantasy at the head of suites, followed by two dance movements. Other composers soon followed his lead.

Although the viol was a popular instrument with the Elizabethans, the violin gradually started to replace it in the 17th century, and the two would often coexist in ensembles. The organ and theorbo were frequently included too.

Christopher D. S. Field has argued that the gestures and structures of fantasia-suites can be compared to contemporary ideas about rhetoric. ‘As part of the trivium’, he writes, ‘rhetoric was a staple ingredient of education, and the habits it inculcated permeated intellectual thought’. He also suggests that Coprario’s three-movement suite structure may have been intended to imitate the formula of Exordium – Medium – Finis, described by German theorists of oration and music as musica poetica.

But while the music of Shakespeare’s day is rightly celebrated, the decades between leading up the arrival of Purcell under Charles II are a shadowy, less familiar terrain in English music history. The story of the music in these turbulent times is a complex and intriguing one, in which consort music would play an important role.

‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ by William Frederick Yeames.

In the 1640s, the outbreak of war and increasing Puritan influence in parliament took its toll on the arts. Theatres – including the ‘great Globe itself’ – were shut down. Meanwhile the new policy for church services was the simple ‘singing of psalms together in the congregation’. The choral tradition which had blossomed so gloriously in cathedrals through the preceding century was ordered to fall silent. Organs were broken up.

And inevitably, the human cost of war was enormous. William Lawes was a musician for Charles I, and during his reign he became a leading composer of consort music. Among his works are set of suites with the striking addition of a harp. Lawes fought with the Royalist forces, and during the siege of Chester in 1645, he was fatally shot.

Dead at age 43, Lawes was mourned as a tragic loss to English music – although his brother Henry, also a composer, would go on to live into the Restoration. But wherever music died, poetry paid its respects. Thomas Jordan composed an ‘urn epitaph’, making wordplay on the politics of the time.

Concord is conquer’d: In this Urne there lies
The Master of great Musick’s mysteries,
And in it is a riddle like the cause:
Will. Lawes was slain by such whose wills were laws.

With the Parliamentarians victorious, on 30th January 1649 came one of the most extraordinary moments in English history. King Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall, and England became a Commonwealth. Shortly after, a 76 year old composer called Thomas Tomkins sat down and composed a Sad Pavan For These Distracted Times. 

Tomkins had worked in music since the days of Elizabeth I, both in the Chapel Royal and at Worcester Cathedral – a city which had suffered two punishing sieges. His pavan is a poignant example of the consolation of chamber music in what must have seemed a time of great uncertainty and senseless destruction. Tomkins died in 1656 at the grand old age of 84, though it was sadly too soon to see the Restoration, nor to hear choral polyphony echoing through the cloisters once again.

***

Victorious sounds! yet here your Homage do
Unto a gentler Conqueror than you;
Who though He flies the Musick of his praise,
Would with you Heavens Hallelujahs raise.

Andrew Marvell, Musicks Empire

The Cromwellian period has an austere reputation. But Andrew Marvell’s poem Musicks Empire illustrates something of the prestige music still carried, and its continuing intermingling with literature. Cromwell himself employed musicians who would entertain for visiting dignitaries, including John Hingeston, who composed fantasies for an unusual combination of cornett, sackbut and organ.

In private spheres, music making still flourished. John Jenkins was one composer who made a prolific contribution during in this period. Much of his work tends towards a kind of flowing serenity, as if a sanctuary from the tumult of politics and war – though he composed a notable pavan and galliard depicting the siege of Newark.

The younger Matthew Locke was also writing for consorts. His music has delightful expressive and dramatic flair, with arresting rhythms and bold harmonic movement, that would go on to influence the young Purcell.

In some ways, the upheavals of the period proved an unexpected catalyst to music. The removal of royal monopolies enabled entrepreneurial spirit to emerge in the industry of publishing. John Playford’s English Dancing Master, a collection of tunes with instructions for each dance, first appeared in 1651 and was enormously successful.

A woodcut that appeared in Playford prints in the 1650s.

Furthermore, the censorship of playhouses gave impetus to any dramatic form with a pretext of musical performance. And so in this period came productions generally regarded as the first English operas. The Siege of Rhodes, ‘sung in Recitative Musick’, was put on by William Davenant in a room in his own house, a remarkable fact given he was a staunch Royalist who had fled the country and been imprisoned. The score has not survived, but it was a collaborative effort whose composers included Henry Lawes.

Clearly, England remained a considerably musical place. But Musicks Empire, with its ‘harmonious colonies’, alludes to another continuing thread – imperial expansion. Cromwell remains infamous for his brutal campaign in Ireland. Under his rule England gained control of Jamaica, whose sugar plantations would become a key part of the transatlantic slave trade. Music was not immune to imperialist propaganda either – a subsequent Davenant production from this period was called, with little subtlety, The Cruelty Of The Spaniards In Peru. Locke composed the score.

Cromwell At Dunbar, by Andrew Carrick Gow.

The Cromwellian period fascinates us partly because it is an aberration in a history we measure in monarchs. But it is also because revolutions open possibilities of what might be – and in doing so, suggest what still could be. Some of the movements that emerged around this time, such as the Levellers and the Diggers, envisioned a society built on radically more egalitarian lines, and have continued to inspire progressive thinkers.

History teases us with ‘what-ifs’. Had Cromwell lived longer, or had the future Charles II not made his near-miraculous escape after the Battle of Worcester, might Britain be a republic today? Of course, we will never know.

And yet on a musical note, one obscure document gives pause for thought. In 1657 a petition was put to the Council of State for a ‘Corporacion or Colledge of Musicians’ to be built in London, with Hingeston one of the signatories. Nothing came of the request. Given that the Royal Academy of Music would not be founded until 1822, it is tantalising to think how differently English music history might have turned out, had it been approved.

***

Sweet spring, full of sweet dayes and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My musick shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

George Herbert, Vertue

Having fled to the continent, Charles II had developed a taste for French music when he returned to England at the Restoration. In November 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded a scene in which the new King ‘bade the French musique play, which, my Lord says, do much outdo all ours’.

Fashions were changing, and while the fantasy persisted for a while, its Shakespearean salad days had passed. As soon as 1667, Christopher Simpson would write that the form was now ‘much neglected by reason of the scarcity of auditors that understand it, their ears being better acquainted and more delighted with light and airy music’.

For this reason, it is something of a mystery as to why the young Henry Purcell composed a number of fantasies and In Nomines around 1680. Unpublished in his lifetime, they lay in the obscurity of manuscripts until the 20th century.

What is certain is that, through contrapuntal ingenuity and intensely concentrated expression, Purcell showed how much these forms could still do. He evidently relished the challenge of restriction – besides two In Nomines, he took the extraordinary step of composing a fantasy ‘Upon One Note’, in which one part plays a single C throughout.

And yet in his radiant seven-part In Nomine, there is a modal darkness that seems consciously antiquated. Its strikingly ghostly ending leaves us without the harmonious third of the triad. Even as Purcell was mastering this tradition – a direct link to the pre-Reformation England of Henry VIII – he seemed to be etching it into an intricate death mask.

Perhaps sensing the way the wind was blowing, Purcell instead opted to publish a set of trio sonatas. In these, he proclaimed, he had ‘faithfully endeavour’d a just imitation of the most fam’d Italian Masters’. Morley would wresteth and turneth in his grave.

But the spirit of the fantasy would have a far-flung afterlife. In the early 20th century, a wealthy philanthropist called Walter Willson Cobbett instituted competitions for British composers to write in a modern version of the form. His aspiration was to foster a culture of domestic music making through the creation of shorter chamber works – the kind of culture that had thrived among the educated classes of the 17th century.

And in the late 1980s, over three centuries after their composition, Purcell’s fantasias were a revelation for the young composer George Benjamin. ‘The combination of concentrated counterpoint with a harmonic, beguiling sensitivity immediately captivated me,’ he said. ‘The discovery of these pieces quite simply changed the way I perceived – and wrote – music.’

One reason that the fantasy form continues to intrigue and inspire is surely its openness. Morley wrote that ‘in this may more art be shown than in any other music because the composer is tied to nothing’. It makes explicit the inherent puzzle of instrumental composition – what, and how, do you make sense out of pure sound?

The fantasy throws down a gauntlet: it invites us to conquer ‘great Musick’s mysteries’. No wonder, then, that the worlds of song, drama, and rhetoric beg to be let in to play along with this little game. It is the very riddle in the composer’s cause.

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Tracing The Origins Of Danny Boy

Binevenagh, County Derry/Londonderry. cc-by-sa/2.0© Albert Bridge. Cropped from source.

     By Anne Ku

The tune known as Londonderry Air long preceded the song Danny Boy, which was published in 1913. Yet today listeners recognize the music as Danny Boy, and not of the numerous other songs and hymns set to the same melody. Why were the lyrics of Danny Boy able to withstand the test of time and its competitors for this tune? Various books, studies, and TV documentaries help to paint a holistic picture of the song’s history and evolution.

The story of Danny Boy spans three distinct periods in music making and dissemination: the oral tradition of Irish folk musicians, the proliferation of sheet music for domestic piano playing, and artist recordings and broadcasts.

In the 19th and earlier centuries, Irish musicians travelled from town to town playing the music of their ancestors or creating their own tunes. None of this was recorded or notated until concerted efforts were made by music scholars to actively collect and publish for preservation.

The tune we know today as Danny Boy first appeared in the 1855 publication The Petrie Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland, arranged for piano. The melody had been contributed by Jane Ross, a collector of Irish melodies from County Londonderry, as an anonymous air. That she did not reveal the source has added to the tune’s mystique, though descendants of a blind fiddler called Jimmy McCurry have claimed that he was the musician who played it to her. Whatever the truth of this, Ross’ tune acquired the name Londonderry Air when the Irish poet Katharine Tynan Hinkson composed the words of Irish Love Song to the melody in 1894.

In his 1979 article New Dates for Old Songs 1766–1803, Hugh Shields points to similarities to an older tune called A Young Man’s Dream, published in Bunting’s The Ancient Music of Ireland in 1796. This used a 3/4 time signature more common to Irish airs, rather than the 4/4 of Ross’ melody. In a major study The Provenance of the Londonderry Air, Brian Audley analysed these tunes to show resemblance and an attribution of lineage. He also notes that that by the year 1923, more than 80 lyrics had been set to the melody.

Writing in The Musical Quarterly in 1920, Annie Patterson attributed the growing interest in this tune to several factors. The composer Sir Hubert Parry had praised the melody in his 1896 book The Evolution Of The Art Of Music, saying that ‘as a simple emotional type’ it was ‘one of the most perfect in existence’. Around the same time, Gaelic culture festivals in Ireland were encouraging composers to put traditional melodies into four-part arrangements and classical forms. Percy Grainger made several piano and orchestral arrangements of Londonderry Air, which charmed the public.

Given the song’s Irish origins and associations, it is ironic that the words to Danny Boy were composed by an Englishman. Frederic E. Weatherly was a barrister and King’s Counsel, but he also wrote over 3000 lyrics, half of which were published as songs. A well-known character who mixed in fashionable circles, he was often invited to pen words for special occasions. Late in life, his regular broadcasts on BBC radio about his life and songs led to his nickname ‘the grand old man of song’.

Frederic Weatherly.

In a 2013 book, Weatherly’s great-grandson Anthony Mann described how the words of Danny Boy had originally been set to a different tune, without success. Though accounts differ as to the precise circumstances, Weatherly had encountered the Londonderry Air via his sister-in-law, who lived in America. He recalled that:

I had never heard the melody or even heard of it […] It so happened that I had written in March of 1910 a song called Danny Boy and re-written it in 1911. By lucky chance it only required a few alterations to make it fit that beautiful melody.

The song was published by Boosey & Co. in 1913. When war broke out the following year, English opera singer Elsie Griffin popularised Weatherly’s song with the British troops in France. The German-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink became the first to record it in 1915. In Stories Behind The World’s Best Loved Songs, Max Cryer argues that Schumann-Heink’s version ‘influenced nearly 200 artists to make recordings of the song, long before recordings became electrical.’

The spread of the gramophone and wireless radio enabled Danny Boy to move swiftly overseas and gain worldwide appreciation. The song acquired particular resonance through the convergence of the rise of Irish nationalism, mass Irish emigration, and the world wars.

In the 1940s, Hollywood embraced Danny Boy in film. In the 1946 romantic comedy Because Of Him it is sung in a crucial scene. The same year, a film about a retired war service dog called Danny Boy featured the melody in the soundtrack.

In the following decades many different artists have brought Danny Boy into the charts, including the Glenn Miller Band, Bing Crosby, and Andy Williams. A 1996 TV documentary on the song featured a host of musicians including Shane McGowan, Eric Clapton, Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison. Johnny Cash made his performance personal by prefacing it with a story of a Danny in his own life. Elvis Presley lauded it as ‘written by angels’, and it was among the selection of music played at his funeral. For the mourning of personal loss this tune has proven particularly powerful – hymn versions of the Londonderry Air were sung at services for the untimely deaths of both Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy. And as a 2013 BBC documentary about the song showed, Danny Boy gave solace to New York firefighters as they grieved their colleagues who were killed in the September 11th attacks, many of whom were Irish-American.

It may be that Weatherly’s fame through his BBC broadcasts encouraged the widespread adoption of his lyrics to this tune. But a crucial factor in its success is surely how the relationship between Danny Boy and the singer remains tantalisingly unspecified. Danny might be a lover, brother, friend, or son. This flexibility makes the song applicable to a wide range of human sentiments and situations.

The universal themes in Weatherley’s words have also enabled Danny Boy to transcend Ireland’s political and sectarian divisions. Although Weatherly had never visited Ireland, in his autobiography he acknowledged that Danny Boy ‘is sung all over the world by Sinn Feiners and Ulstermen alike’. Over a century later, Danny Boy has become an unofficial anthem for the Irish, a symbol of Irish diaspora, and an enduring song of love and loss.

Anne Ku was born in Brunei and raised in Okinawa, Japan. She began taking piano lessons at age eight, and obtained a degree in composition and teaching diploma in piano from Utrecht Conservatory. Thereafter she taught music at University of Hawaii Maui College for a number of years. Her official website has links to her blogs about cultural economics, behind-the-scenes stories of her piano guitar duo, and her latest passion – the ukulele.

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