Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music and writing in London, UK.
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I've had a weird thing called a Day Off, in between rather stressful patches of work (I'm determined to try and do that more often than twice a year) and am therefore giving the Monday floor to my colleague Andrew Morris, from devillstrill.blogpot.com for an opinion piece: what happens to us listeners when music written for awful purposes turns out to be rather good? Here is his revisiting of Prokofiev's second stab at Stalinist propaganda... JD

Beautiful Music for Bad People

Andrew Morris is a writer on classical music, and teacher. He blogs at devilstrill.blogspot.com and tweets as @devilstrillblog.

Sergei Prokofiev in 1918
photo from Wikipedia

Like many of us, I worry. I worry about a lot of things, but I spend a significant amount of time worrying whether my friends, or my peers, or particularly my students will ever discover the wonder and joy of classical music. Will they ever lose themselves in Bach’s Passions, or thrill to the sound of an orchestra, or puzzle over the edges of music and noise? 
I try to smuggle a little music into my lessons. Students studying Napoleon heard snatches of Beethoven’s Eroica and the story that went with it. Recently, with a GCSE class investigating culture and politics in Stalin’s USSR, I used interview footage featuring the great Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, recounting the way in which, during the Soviet period, books themselves were altered as officials and artists feel in and out of favour. But I had an ulterior motive: the interview, from Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary The Red Baton, plays with clips of Sergei Prokofiev’s choral ode to Stalin, Zdravitsa (“A Toast” or “Hail to Stalin”). It’s beautiful, sweeping stuff.
It worked. At the end of the clip, my class had understood the Stalinist editing of history, but some had also rather liked the music. “It sounds really nice”, said one. The adjective might have needed work, but the point had been made: classical music could surprise you, and it could also dovetail with history in unexpected ways.
But I only worried more. This particular piece of music raised uncomfortable questions, and the fact of our enjoying it only made it more problematic. Zdravitsa was written in 1939, towards the end of Joseph Stalin’s purges of the Communist Party, the armed forces, and of society at large. Thousands were executed after sham trails; millions more were despatched to Siberia, as slave labour for Stalin’s gulags. And in the midst of this, Stalin had artists, writers, film makers, composers and the rest working to wreath him in propaganda glory, to ensure that the he was elevated to the level of a god in the minds of the population.

The piece was Prokofiev’s second stab at Stalinist propaganda. He’d left the country in 1917, but was tempted back by the authorities in 1936, who promised him the preeminent position amongst Soviet composers. Immediately, he set about writing an epic choral work to make the 20th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, but he made a disastrous miscalculation: against advice, Prokofiev decided to select texts from the writings of Lenin and Stalin for himself, rather than use officially sanctioned excerpts. This alone was enough to ensure that performance of the piece was refused, and when it came to Zdravitsa, the composer played it safe, writing a smaller and much less daring work.
It does, though, retain some special attraction. The opening melody glows in a way that only Prokofiev seems to have been able to manage. The ending is glittering and stirring enough to almost make one forget the final word of the piece is the name of the architect of so much misery: the choir exclaims “Stalin!” As music, it works, but it’s also very successful propaganda. And there’s the problem. If I enjoy it, am I turning a blind eye to the barbarity it celebrates? And if I invite my students to appreciate it purely musically, am I selling them not beauty, but rather an impression of beauty perverted for evil?
These are questions that belong very much to our time, and I’m puzzling them just as we’re being asked to re-evaluate the work of people guilty of immoral and, in some cases, illegal acts, and as we’re reconsidering art that reflects attitudes we now find unacceptable. A musical ode to Stalin ought to be the simplest case of unacceptable art there is, and yet I find myself unwilling to cast it aside quite so quickly. It’s often easy to discount this stuff on grounds of quality – Prokofiev penned other propaganda pieces which have none of the appeal – though it’s arguably the beauty and skill of the music that makes it such effective propaganda.
We must, though, give ourselves a certain degree of credit. I had chosen that film clip with two purposes in mind, but they were also connected. My students could understand the manipulation at the heart of propaganda while at the same time finding it aesthetically appealing. They weren’t going to become enthusiastic Stalinists because I’d played them some Prokofiev. Understanding that beautiful things could serve terrible masters is valuable in itself and sometimes the impulse to remove the morally problematic denies us the opportunity to consider these sorts of ambiguities. Appreciating the quality of Prokofiev’s music for Stalin doesn’t preclude an understanding of the regime it was created to serve; I would argue it only deepens it. AM
5 days ago |
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Jelly d'Arányi: Schumann heroine
...the 80th anniversary of the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto, given by our own Jelly d'Arányi with Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Queen's Hall, London. If I remember right, the second half contained the UK premiere of Sibelius 5. As this event forms the climax and final chapter of my Ghost Variations I really should have flagged it up on the day, especially as I had been intending to do so for months on end.

Fortunately, the Royal Northern Sinfonia did notice, and planned ahead, and got Alina Ibragimova to come up and play it, and Radio 3 noticed too and broadcast the concert, so it is now, happily, available to listen to on the BBC iPlayer, here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09r7vb0

The full history involved a surprise "spirit message" ostensibly from Schumann; a hunt - by the Swedish Minister in London - through the music libraries of Berlin; a propaganda exercise by the Nazis, who wanted the Schumann concerto to replace the banned Mendelssohn in their people's affections; a reworking of the piece because it didn't, er, quite fit the bill - mostly assigned, unbeknownst to the authorities, to Hindemith; the intervention of Yehudi Menuhin, the young Jewish American violin superstar to whom the publishers from Nazi Germany sent a photostat of the manuscript; and a scandal when the story of the "spirit messages" broke just weeks before Jelly was supposed to give the London premiere, which was then delayed for about four months, though mostly because the Nazis kept changing the date of the German premiere... The saga took some disentangling, but much of it is in Ghost Variations.

...which is not a "romantic story", as one lady I met at a party fondly imagined, but is about the rise of facsism and a warning from history. Eighty years ago does not seem such a long time, being easily within living memory. Several years after the performance, the Queen's Hall was flattened in the Blitz. Tovey died in 1939, as did Jelly's brother-in-law. Myra Hess became a national heroine. Things change. Things can change fast when balance is lost. This was the edge of madness - for Schumann, for Jelly, for the world itself - and we shouldn't forget, because we may be at another edge of madness now.

David Le Page, Viv McLean and I are also doing a Ghost Variations concert this week, the nearest thing we have to an anniversary performance: it will be under the auspices of the Leicester International Music Festival which runs a series of lunchtime concerts year round. It's at the Victorian Art Gallery, New Walk Museum, Leicester, on Thursday 22 February, 1pm. The programme has been adapted for a one-hour format and includes some pieces new to our programme, not least by Gluck and Elgar. We do hope you'll come along if you're in the area. More details here.
7 days ago |
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Having recently experienced from the inside just what it is like to create an opera (it's rather like building the world's largest cruise-ship), I've been thinking about The Ones That Got Away. The operas that were never written. The operas that composers longed to write, but were never able to because they couldn't get the copyright or couldn't get the commissions or died before they could even begin. Here are a few of the works that might have graced our stages, but don't.

Goethe, painting by Tischbein
1. FAUST, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Goethe loved Mozart's music and stated that he would be the ideal composer to transform his Faust into an opera. Other composers were a bit too modern for his taste. The first inklings of Faust were published as Faust - A Fragment, in 1790. Mozart died before any prospect of it could become even a bit viable. Don Giovanni is probably the closest approximation...

2. WAITING FOR GODOT, by Pierre Boulez. The late French composer and conductor was widely rumoured to be planning an opera on Beckett's masterpiece, and I asked him about it in 2012. Indeed, the frail 87-year-old confirmed, he would love to write it if he were granted long enough on earth. Sadly, he wasn't.

3. Unnamed (I think) opera on a story by Ivan TURGENEV, by Johannes Brahms. In Baden-Baden,
Brahms was introduced to the Russian author by Pauline Viardot, the singer with whom Turgenev was obsessed for most of his life. Much socialising took place in the beautiful German spa town, Viardot's home, where she had a little theatre in the back garden, and Turgenev drafted a libretto for the composer. Unfortunately Brahms never set it. It told the story of a 40-something man who fell in love with a young 20-something woman, and it's possible Brahms took it a bit personally, since he had been pursuing his beloved Clara Schumann's daughter Julie about that time. Julie married a young man of her own vintage, but died tragically of tuberculosis soon afterwards; in her memory, Brahms wrote the Alto Rhapsody for Viardot to sing.

4. THE VICTORS, by Richard Wagner. It was going to be an opera on the life of the Buddha and Wagner sketched some ideas for it. But then he realised he had already written his Buddhist opera and it was Parsifal...

Fauré's sketch of Verlaine
5. THE BUDDHA. Again. This time, words by Paul Verlaine, music by Gabriel Fauré. The Princesse de Polignac, one of Fauré's most important patrons, wanted to bring the poet and composer together to create an opera and Fauré set about tracking Verlaine down. He found him in hospital, succumbing to alcoholism. They talked about making an opera on the life of the Buddha. Fauré sketched him. But Verlaine's commitment to his drink proved stronger than his drive to write a libretto. In the end Fauré played the organ at his funeral. Nevertheless, he set Verlaine's poetry in some of his finest songs, including the Cinq Mélodies de Venise and La bonne chanson.

6. HIAWATHA, by Antonín Dvorák. When Dvorák went to America to run the New York Conservatory of Music, he was charged (by its sponsor, Jeannette Thurber) with the task of inventing a national style of music for the nation. Researching possibilities, he became fascinated by Negro Spirituals and likewise by the story of Hiawatha, in the poem by Henry W. Longfellow. He aimed to turn the poem into an opera and sketched some material for it. For some reason the board of the conservatory had to approve his libretto. And they didn't approve it. And this stopped him from writing the thing. Some of the music ended up in his Symphony No.9, in which form it is now ubiquitously famous.

7. REBECCA, by Roxanna Panufnik, libretto by muggins, based on Daphne du Maurier. A few years ago we tried for but couldn't get the stage rights, which had been recently awarded to a musical. It was a little bit heartbreaking. Never mind... we ended up creating Silver Birch instead. We have plenty more ideas, and you know where to find us.

8. SILENCE, by Poldowski. Unlike the others on this list, this 'symphonic opera' was both written and published (in New York sometime around 1920). So where is it? 'Poldowski' was the pseudonym of Irène Régine Wieniawska, daughter of the violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski; after her marriage she was Lady Dean Paul. Her music is simply fabulous. Its non-existence today has nothing to do with its lack of creation.

9. DEIRDRE, by Arnold Bax, on an Irish story by WB Yeats. Fascinating stuff, this, sketched in part yet never fully realised. Read all about it here.

10. OSSIANE, by Marie Jaëll. A disciple of Liszt and a devoted pianist and composer, Jaëll was a 19th-century French musician unlucky enough to be born in an era when living for your art wasn't an accepted life approach for a young woman. She managed to do so anyway, though she seems to have suffered psychologically, and her music can be, to judge from what I've heard, a bit patchy. Still, this opera would be fascinating. It was written - but only extracts survive. The amazing Palazzetto Bru Zane has devoted a recording and accompanying book to some of her other works. More about her from the brilliant Song of the Lark blog here.

And last, but by no means least, the excellent Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, faced with new opera seasons in the US that look chiefly like Same Old with Some Stars, has tweeted her own ideal opera season: all of them splendid operas that happen to have been composed by women. Here it is, and hear hear to it all!

If you enjoy JDCMB, please support it here.

8 days ago |
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I'm on an editorial job at the moment that is leaving me no time even to think, much less blog, so I have invited our informal Youth Correspondent, Jack Pepper (composer, writer, broadcaster, 18) to offer another guest post. Here is his view on why we classical audiences could enjoy being a little bit more demonstrative in responding to the music... or even face the music and dance.

Love the MagicJack Pepper
In a 2017 interview discussing the reasons for his success, André Rieu argued that “love and authenticity” are sometimes “hard to find in other classical concerts”. Perhaps it’s not that love and authenticity are lacking in other concerts, but they are instead less clearly evident. Rieu may have identified a problem….
André Rieu's Maastricht concert (2015).
Photo from ClassicFM.com

Love and authenticity are hardly difficult to come by amongst classical musicians. The very nature of practising – working for hours at the same pages, and returning again and again – makes it ludicrous to suggest that most musicians in this field lack love and authenticity. They are most likely in this career out oflove, because only the very top few percent make bucket-loads of money. However, Rieu may be correct in implying that love and authenticity are not always as bombastically displayed in other concerts in comparison to his own; where Rieu rightly displays his affection for the music through smiles, elegant gestures and bright costumes, other instrumentalists go for a simpler touch. They don’t aim so much for a ‘look’ or a ‘brand’, instead using the music alone as their image. Think of Haitink’s restrained gestures on the podium, or the control of Brendel at the piano. Rieu is a showman, and clearly loves the music he plays, but so do all the other performers who may be less flamboyant. But is there is a problem with this? Does a lack of flamboyance suggest a lack of love for the music?
Of course not.  We all react to art in different ways – just think of the last time you cried at a movie, or, if this doesn’t apply to you, the last time you scoffed at someone for doing so – and the same applies to performers. But Rieu’s comment does raise an interesting question about listeners: are we too serious, too high-minded, too restrained about the music we hold dear?
At a rock concert, we might see headbanging. At a hip hop concert, we might see mosh pits. At a world music festival, we might see dancing. It seems all of the various genres of music involve audience participation at one point or another in a concert, and yet what does classical music have as an equivalent? Audience members often get frustrated by coughs and sneezes, actively discouraging any sound or movement from anyone other than the instrumentalists on stage. It says a lot about our attitudes to the genre that we consider the Last Night of the Proms raucous; in any other context, an audience clapping, cheering and waving some flags would be considered at best the norm, at worst rather sober. 
There is nothing wrong about this, since – as I previously argued – we all react to music in different ways, and surely this applies to different genres too. If we want classical concerts to be known for focus and intent, there is nothing wrong with that. However, my concern is that this tradition of audience restraint in classical concerts in reality stifles our individual reactions to the music. Instead of being a tradition of focus and intent, it seems more a tradition of restricting the joy we feel deep down when we hear a great piece of music. By sensing some unspoken concert code of conduct, we are reluctant to react to the music we love in ways that feel genuine and spontaneous to us. Silence is not the natural way to react to powerful music.
Rieu’s comment focuses on classical performers where perhaps it would be better focused on the listeners themselves. Whilst all such listeners undoubtedly love the music presented, it would often be hard to tell by appearances alone. Why should someone be reprimanded for clapping after a rousing first movement, if the infectiousness of the music drove them to do so? Why should someone be sneered at for moving in their chair at the buoyant rhythms of a scherzo? More radical still, why can’t we have concerts where people can move, dance, cheer, clap and sing?
I’m not advocating a return to the 18th-century, where audiences attending an opera were often present for anything but the opera itself. But classical music seems to me to have lost its sense of celebration – celebrating the greatest music ever written – and with it, its sense of fun. Why should we restrict audience participation to one night of a concert season?! In previous centuries, there would have been chamber music for such intimate expressions of individuality and togetherness, but we live in a time when it would be considered unusual to gather round a piano as a family and sing a favourite song. Nor do many couples attend a dance, an event that previously offered the opportunity to express our reactions to music spontaneously and without judgement. The larger scale concerts have become, for many of us, our most intimate form of music-making, and yet this has not translated to the way we react to the music we hear at classical recitals.
It could be argued that heartfelt cries of joy would be distracting in a classical concert, and that pieces require focus and silence in order to be fully appreciated. Why not react with a dance or a shriek at home to a recording, where nobody else can be distracted from the music? Such an attitude feels oppressive. Music is meant to be a universal language, and a language that touches a deeper part of our subconscious than anything else. Why, then, must we force ourselves to be so serious when listening to it?

Rieu is wrong to suggest other musicians lack love and authenticity. Listeners equally harbour an abundance of love and authenticity for the music they enjoy. The question lies with whether we show it. I don’t advocate applauding or crying for the sake of reacting, but I strongly believe that the first time we listened to such a piece of music, we would have reacted this way. The unspoken code of conduct – of quiet, rigidity and unobtrusiveness – has conditioned us to stay silent. Music is designed to provoke emotions, response and new thoughts, and whilst we undoubtedly revere a work, are we truthfully reacting to it at all if we sit in a concert as rigid as a corpse? Marilyn Manson described music as “the strongest form of magic”. It’s time that we were open to the way we feel about the music we so love, to celebrate it. It’s time that we feel free to show the magic that makes us listen. JP
11 days ago |
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Last November I was lucky enough to be in the audience at Cadogan Hall when a brief yet desperately haunting sliver of film was shown for the first time: the only known cinematic images of the pianist Dinu Lipatti. He died at the age of 33 and remains to this day a figure attracting reverence and longing amongst pianophiles and more. Orlando Murrin - best known as a journalist and former editor of BBC Good Food, to which I used to subscribe assiduously - is behind this discovery and presented it before a concert in which Alexandra Dariescu played Lipatti's gorgeous, neoclassical, Bachy-Stravinskyish Concertino. He has written us a guest post about his continuing hunt for material - and an ongoing quest to convince publishers and film-makers of the worth of a book or documentary. Enjoy! JD

In the footsteps of Dinu Lipatti
By Orlando Murrin

From a private album of Madeleine Lipatti.
On the back, in her hand: "Où? Je ne sais plus mais nous étions heureux - - " Credit: Collection Mme Cathérine Nurock-Foëx

 A couple of years ago I found myself with some time on my hands, and decided I would devote it to researching a musician who has fascinated me all my life - the Romanian pianist Dinu Lipatti.

I can remember the exact moment my interest was triggered, at the barbaric boarding school in the West Country to which I was sent at the age of 13. Sunday evenings were cheered up - as much as they could be - by club and society meetings, held in the masters’ houses. A couple of times a term, the ‘Gramophone Society’ would gather and listen to records, and in the gaps between symphonies and string quartets, we would ask stupid questions. What is the hardest piece of music in the world? (‘Islamey’, apparently - though it could just have been the most virtuosic piece the music master had on vinyl.) Who’s the best pianist ever? ‘Liszt. After him, a Romanian who died young, called Dinu Lipatti.’
I should explain at this point that unlike most contributors to this august blog, I am not a professional music writer, critic or musicologist, and although I used to supplement my meagre income as a magazine sub-editor by playing the piano in restaurants, I am not even a professional musician. I love classical music, however, as much as anyone, and over decades of listening, remain convinced that - at least about Lipatti - I was told right.
Of course, Lipatti’s death at the age of just 33 - the last seven years under the curse of a terrible illness - means his legacy is pretty slender. When I first collected his records, there were about three hours of music; more have come to light over the years - including crackly bootlegs from concerts - and now there are about six. The most extraordinary remains the Last Recital, a performance of unearthly beauty recorded live in Besançon just three months before the pianist’s death: unable to finish the programme, which he played with unearthly beauty, his eyes set on the middle distance as if gazing into the hereafter, he staggered off stage, only to return a few minutes later to play for the final time his signature encore, ‘Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring’.
So what makes his playing so special? For a start, his impeccable phrasing, glowing sonority and absolute technical mastery. His dazzling range of tonal colour and innate, unostentatious rubato. The ‘momentum’ he gives to his performance, as he drives the listener through whatever musical structure he is presenting. If there is a Wigmore Hall in the skies, I feel Bach, Schubert and Chopin would choose Lipatti to perform their compositions, rather than Richter or Horowitz. His delivery is immaculate, discreet and seamless, as if he is clothing the music in the most expensive of Savile Row suits.
As a performer, Lipatti had something else, which we have to imagine for ourselves: charisma. There was something of the Valentino about this small, intense young man, with his exotic, brooding good looks, and who played the piano with ‘steel fingers in velvet gloves’. From the outset, audiences (and critics) went wild for him, and his concert appearances (mainly restricted to Switzerland, as illness took its inexorable hold) began to attract an almost religious fanaticism.
A rare photo of Lipatti taken only days before his death, with a nurse.
Credit: Collection Mme Cathérine Nurock-Foëx

Another area of fascination is his life story, which is so melodramatic it is surprising it hasn’t been made into a film. Among the myriad elements are…•     his privileged background, scion of a wealthy family in the Golden Age of Romania•     a ruthlessly ambitious mother, who dragged the family off to Paris so her son could study with Cortot•     the misfiring of his career, at the outbreak of the Second World War, and ill-judged propaganda tours of Germany and the Axis territories•     his headlong love affair with a married beauty nine years his senior (a princess, no less) and subsequent ‘elopement’ to Switzerland•     their hand-to-mouth existence in Geneva, and the onset of a terrible mystery illness (finally diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma)•     the ruin and humiliation of Lipatti’s family back in Romania, and his mother’s ill-fated attempt to visit him (caught smuggling jewellery in her underwear and thrown into jail at the Romanian border)•     his glorious remission in 1950 (thanks to cortisone, flown from the USA at vast expense by well-wishers) and that testament to his courage and spirit, the Last Recital (arguably the most famous concert of the 20th century)•     his posthumous ‘stardom’ and phenomenal record sales, which enriched his widow but could not prevent…•     her descent into depression and drink, and eventual death 33 years later, surrounded by ’millions’ of cats and enmired in the ‘Chopin Concerto Scandal’, in which she had misidentified one of her late husband’s recordings.
The plaque on the Lipattis' home street in Geneva. It was
put up last year, funded through the generosity of Lipatti's doctor's
daughter, who has set up a foundation in their joint
names to finance medical research into leukaemia.
Readers will not be surprised that once I started probing into this colourful tale, I could not stop. I found myself striking up surprising new friendships, way beyond my normal sphere (some might say, out of my normal league…). With warm-hearted pianist and Lipatti fan Alberto Portugheis, who studied with Lipatti’s widow. With Lipatti’s meticulous, gracious-mannered biographer, Grigore Barguaunu, in Paris. With the patient, wise Christian Mitetelu and his violinist wife Ioana Raluca Voicu, who guided me through the finer points of Romania’s otherwise baffling political history.  With the disarmingly personable historic recordings expert Mark Ainley, in Vancouver, who recently discovered 15 minutes of Lipatti playing Scarlatti and Brahms, and believes there is more out there yet.
I also started to make discoveries of my own. During a study trip to Bucharest, I found the Lipatti family home in danger of demolition and launched a campaign to try and save it (so far, successful). I tracked down 27 seconds of cine film showing Lipatti at a garden party in Lucerne in 1947 - the only footage in existence - and premiered it at last November’s Lipatti centenary concert at Cadogan Hall. Since then, I travelled to Geneva and unearthed two major hauls of unpublished papers and photographs, including intimate love letters and diaries. (I don’t blush easily but some are really intimate.)
The question I am now faced with is what to do with this wealth of new material. So far I have written an article about Lipatti for the Daily Telegraph (‘Is this the Greatest Pianist of the 20th Century?’) and championed him for an episode of ‘Great Lives’ on BBC Radio 4. I have enough research for a new biography, except that I have been reliably informed that it would not be published, because the subject matter is ‘too esoteric’. My current hope is to interest a documentary film producer in the project, using the cine film footage as a peg, and interspersing the story with interviews of some of the compelling figures that make up his cult following today. There is a ‘peg’, too - the 70th anniversary of the Last Recital (and Lipatti’s death) falls in 2020.
Whatever the end result, the time I have spent with Lipatti, his story and - of course - his legendary recordings, has been among the most enriching of my life. Those Sunday evenings at boarding school were not wasted.
•     If readers would like to get in touch with me regarding anything Lipatti, please feel free via orlando.murrin@gmail.com. Particularly if you happen to have in your attic the lost recording of Lipatti playing Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, broadcast by the Third Programme at 9.30pm on 20 April 1948…•     The newly discovered recordings of Lipatti playing Scarlatti and Brahms are due to be released imminently by Marston Records (though they’ve been saying that for months)•     The ‘fan club’ gravitates around the Dinu Lipatti Society Facebook page

15 days ago |
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I should have expected to love Philip Glass's Satyagraha, yet I've steered away from attending it for years. A meditative opera of enormous sincerity and compassion about one of the 20th century's giant humanitarian figures? With a production at ENO by Improbable and Phelim McDermott that has propelled it to top classic status? What's not to love? Still it was only the other night I saw it for the first time at English National Opera - and came out wondering, dazed, where it had been all my life. It's left me musing on a great many things, some personal, some musicological, some about Glass himself.

So here is a long post from a Satyagraha novice...

Toby Spence as Gandhi. Photo (c) Donald Cooper, ENO
Satyagraha has one of the longest synopses I've come across in an opera programme. It's spread across eight pages, including a couple of photos and a lot of translated text - for this is a work that ENO - whose mission statement is to perform opera in English - gives entirely in Sanskrit with no surtitles (the production does include some select translations, projected onto the set). The programme provides the story, the history, the context. You wouldn't guess it otherwise.

This production melds perfectly with the music, unfurling in slow motion with moments of extraordinary magic. A woman will suddenly become airborne, mirroring the moon, as if it's the most natural thing in the world, or giant puppets of the warriors and gods of Hindu legend seem to acquire a life of their own, or strange, shimmering things are done with what looks like long strands of giant sellotape.

The pace of change and the degree of imagination on stage matches that of the music, which casts its sonorous and translucent spells with subtlety, at long, slow, steady length, the evolution and the eventual contrast located deep within the structures. Glass has said before now that the composer closest to his heart is Schubert, and one is occasionally put in mind of the moment in Der Doppelgänger at which, having set up a repetitive, pitch-dark harmonic world, Schubert inserts a rise of one semitone that can shatter your heart with a single note.

It's rare to see an opera in which a production suits the composition to quite such an intimate degree. As for the storytelling, we were advised by those in the know to read every word of the programme beforehand, but didn't get round to it, so depended on the show to do its own job, and at times it does. Gandhi's actions in 19th/20th-century South Africa, his leadership of peaceful resistance in the face of vast injustice, is reflected with moments of specificity, watched over in turn by the unmistakable figures of Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and finally, from the future, Martin Luther King. Gandhi's white-clad followers burn their identity cards. His associates are led away by armoured police. He, morphing from business-suited lawyer to isolated holy man in white robe, treats everything with equanimity.

But the music itself does not give us the story. Essentially, Satyagraha is a setting of texts from the Bhagavad Gita, apportioned to certain voices according to the story outline, but telling precious little of it in itself. And that is absolutely fine, because in certain ways Satyagraha is a natural successor to Parsifal. The wide, deep horizon unfurling in a timespan of its own. The journey to wisdom through compassion. The promise of spiritually enlightened leadership. The reminder, to a delusion-blinded audience, that spiritual truths and the goodness of which humanity is capable can only be reached when we discard materialism and ego. Wagner wanted to write a Buddhist opera, but apparently cut his efforts short when he realised he'd already done it in Parsifal.

Andri Björn-Robertsson as Krishna. Photo (c) Donald Cooper ENO

This is the point at which the spiritual, the political, the artistic and the historical blend and balance - in Wagner implicitly, in Glass explicitly. Satyagraha offers a message for today, delivered through words from an eastern scripture written earlier than 400 BC.

Many years ago, back in the 1990s when I was a very green twenty-something, I became briefly involved in a system of yoga and meditation that was, possibly, one step short of a cult. There were ashrams in many different countries, a guru, festivals, traditions, fabulous Indian vegetarian food, texts, lectures, courses, "intensives" - at which your kundalini spiritual energy would be awakened - and, not least, all-night chants. I'd never have expected to be got by such a thing, and it's hard, looking back, to comprehend exactly how it happened - though I know it was something to do with a conversation at the Salzburg Festival, of all places, around 1991. To cut a long story short, I spent three years happily immersed in the heightened sensitivity and intuition that results from deep meditation and unshakeable faith...while my life fell to pieces around my ears.

I gave it all up in 1995 when I realised that it held none of the answers I wanted. You can keep chanting - kali durga namo namah, om jaya jaya etc - but if you lose three members of your family to cancer in quick succession, your partners dump you for not paying them enough attention and your bosses take advantage of your distraction to bleed your work capacity dry for two quid an hour, you actually need to get your feet back on the ground and deal with it. Besides, some things in life, notably triple bereavements, simply don't have answers. Soon after that, an exposé of the organisation in The New Yorker proved an eye-opener, and I stopped going.

The important thing, however, is that there were good things too. In particular, the memory of the space within the mind that's opened out by meditation has never quite left me. It is one of the better, more mysterious, more creative and most beautiful spheres available to human beings that doesn't involve going to a mountaintop or the sea. It's within us at all times, waiting for us to access it. And it has immense benefits to offer us when we do. Twenty minutes into Satyagraha and I'm back in that self-same space.

And I wonder: is this, perhaps, where our "minimalism" comes from? There's nothing minimal about a three and a half hour opera, by the way. It's massive (and it could perhaps shed 15-20 minutes without losing much import). But the musical idea that has been saddled with the term "minimalism" - the repetition of cells and phrases that slowly evolve and change - what's behind that? Is it the chants of eastern mysticism, those long, spirit-awakening chants that we used to sing? A typical chant is, for example, two eight-bar phrases (with words in Sanskrit). And it repeats and repeats, for as long as necessary. Gradually it speeds up. Usually there's a music group at the front - a tanpura providing the background drone, some tabla, perhaps some tiny clinking cymbals - and the music leader determines the pace and the intensity as the chant goes along. This can last fifteen minutes, two hours, all night, three days.

You mightn't want to stay in the London Coliseum for three days. But the principle of the chant, though much less sophisticated, is possibly not entirely far removed from Glass's opera. The sound of Glass has become ubiquitous in the modern world, its impact on film scores, TV, pop music and contemporary classical alike being immeasurable. If it all originates in spiritual chant, how utterly ironic that it's become the soundtrack to a deluded, polarised, divided, cruel, uber-materialistic world so lacking in the compassion and equanimity that Satyagraha extols.

Glass. Photo from http://philipglass.com/gallery/
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to secure an interview with Philip Glass (you can read the original result in the Independent if you can find it, but the new-look site seems not to have preserved this precious moment; fortunately I've also written a longer account at Primephonic here). I loved talking to him because he was such a genuine musician, so down to earth - real musicians are utterly practical people. To him, yoga is not an optional extra: it is part of that down-to-earthness. It keeps him in shape mentally and physically, he suggests, and it will enable him to continue working into his nineties if he wants to - he was, at the time of the interview, an extremely youthful 77. His book Words Without Music is fabulous, a portrait of his times and his journey through their exceptional, collaborative, enriching, enlightening creativities. (My goodness, how sorry I am that I missed the Sixties.)

As I can't find my Independent article, I've just nipped back to the original interview transcript to snaffle a few comments from Glass about Satyagraha and the background to how he wrote it. It was, incidentally, his "breakthrough" work. I asked how influenced his music was by the world of eastern mysticism. "The connection is right in the music itself," he said...
"Satyagraha was the piece that took me into making a living. But it started off slowly and even the year before I had no idea that later on I would not be working at a day job. In fact I’d been living off of music for six months before it occurred to me that I hadn’t had a day job in six months. I remember it very clearly – my cab licence came up for renewal and I renewed it. I had no confidence that I would be able to make a living. But I didn’t use it and three years later when it came up for renewal again I didn’t renew it. That tells you where I was at!...  
"I went to India a lot of times and as well as studying with a lot of yoga teachers I was an assistant to Ravi Shankar – he was an important part of my music world, and there were lessons I learned from him – not through him, but the movie he was working on…. His teacher was there and gave me lessons just because I was there. I origianlly went to India for two reasons. I went to study Gandhism and that was an important motivation – I spent at least 10 years going back and forth and meeting people who knew him and going to places he’d lived. My opera method is a total immersion in a subject, without even considering what the structure and content will be for a while – I had no idea what I’d do with the Gandhi material, I was working on it from 1971 on and I didn’t write the piece until about 10 years later and during that period I went there six or eight times...  
"I did another big piece about Ramakrishna. People don’t look at it that way, but I know what I’ve done, people don’t know that, but if you look at that, there are songs based on a Tibetan yogi. If you just look at the libretto for my Fifth Symphony, there are 34 texts from [nearly as many] traditions. So in some ways it’s gone into the music directly, either because it’s about the person or their texts I’ve used. So if you say has it had an influence – well, I’ve used the material! It’s not an influence, it’s an actual usage! Satyagraha couldn’t have been written without that. I had a detailed and as intimate [exploration], given that Gandhi died in 1947, I was working on it 20 years after he died and I was able to meet in a bar with people he knew, I was able to visit places he'd lived, and I made a point of going to every location. When you look at the opera, I don’t think anyone could have written that opera who hadn’t had a very in-depth acquaintance with it all. There are some wonderful books by people who knew him and lived with him and worked with him… So is there a connection? The connection is right in the music itself."
You'd think, given my own little spell immersed in eastern mysticism, that I'd be a natural Glass-head. Yet I shied away from going to Satyagraha for years. The only other piece I avoided to nearly the same degree was the Ring cycle (though I did see that for the first time in my mid twenties). You'll know, if you're a regular at JDCMB, how often I curse received opinion. And have I not been as prone to received opinion as anyone else? Well, of course. That's how I've learned how lousy and insidious the syndrome is. The bald fact is that prejudice against stuff puts other people off. If you're aware that many of your friends and colleagues avoid certain kinds of music because either it bores them silly or they just don't get it, you're less likely to venture to "get it" yourself. I run with excitement to Reich and Adams, have done for years, but less so to Glass, because I thought I'd heard so much of it that I knew what it was about. But I didn't.

So there's a moral to this long weekend read for you. Never make uninformed choices. Investigate thoroughly. Understand what you're doing and thinking and saying. Never take someone else's opinion for your own. Go and hear that piece of music that scares you a bit, and only then make up your own mind, once you've been immersed in it, preferably in live performance.

And do go and see Satyagraha. It's on through this month at ENO. Toby Spence sings a bright, pure-toned Gandhi, the chorus is glorious and Glass expert Karen Kamensek conducts. Book here.

21 days ago |
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When the composer Joanna Marsh moved to Dubai, she found her whole perspective shifting towards life, music and more. She has just written a new piece to mark the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in Britain, with a libretto by David Pountney - Pearl of Freedom, being premiered at St John's Smith Square tomorrow - and I was keen to get her to tell us a bit more about writing on a feminist topic from the Middle East. Here's our e-interview.
Joanna Marsh in Dubai.
Both photos from joannamarsh.co.uk
JD: What prompted you to write a piece about Emily Davison in particular? And how did this opportunity come your way?
JM: Emily Davison was actually part of the brief. Rupert Gough, (the current Director of Choral Music Royal Holloway, University of London) came to a performance of mine last May and mentioned that they were planning to commission a piece to coincide with the anniversary of the Representation of the People Act as Emily Davison was an alumna of the college. He asked whether I was interested.
JD: Your librettist is David Pountney - what was it like to work with him? Please could you describe the collaborative process?
JM: This is the second piece I’ve worked on with David and it felt completely different to the last one. We had a few conversations about which were the best research materials were, I sent him a book or two that I had come across and we looked through various films and bits of footage footage. He came up with the idea of using the extracts of diaries, news reports and anecdotes to recount the events leading up to the Epsom Derby of 1913 with very little, if anything, invented. There was a huge amount of material to choose from. Most of our discussions were about what could be cut without great loss. It was all very calm and considered.  
Not so the piece before which was the first time I worked with David, on My Beautiful Camel. This was a wacky comedy set in Dubai; a story I had devised with the new Dubai Opera house in mind. His libretto was a triumph of wit and humour and his experience of a lifetime in opera meant that the structure was great and did all the right things. (That has been a great bonus of working with David actually; he is brilliant on what will and won’t work dramatically). However there was quite a lot of toing and froing over the characters and their behaviour; what they would or wouldn’t be likely to do or say in the UAE etc. And there were a few really rude words that I kept trying to edge out but he wanted to keep in. He did eventually agree to dial down some of the sweariness but I felt weirdly square having those conversations. Swearing wasn’t really an issue with the Emily Davison piece!
JD: Musically, how have you approached the project? What were the biggest challenges in it for you? And has it developed/extended/changed the way you compose at all, and if so, how?
JM: From conversations I have had with colleagues I think most, if not all, composers sit there at the beginning of the composition process trying to remember how to begin. The process feels oddly unfamiliar every time. I find it very similar to a chess game. You start with an opening gambit and a rough idea of what might follow but you can’t see all that far ahead. The landscape can change in an instant as you realize you need to follow up on certain ideas and leave aside others you had thought might work. But having eight episodes of text in front of me was helpful with Pearl of Wisdom. It was visible on hard copy where the moments of greatest intensity needed to be, where the momentum had to build or relax. The conundrum was how to create a piece that felt musically balanced.
Every piece provides its own learning process: you are saying something you have not said before, it is always new terrain.
JD: How does the work fit in to your output in general - for instance, are feminist topics recurrent for you, or is this the first time you’ve tackled one?
JM: I haven’t worked on a piece with a specifically feminist topic before. The only piece I have written with political overtones was The Tower, for choir and brass, which was about the Burj Khalifa. I had just arrived in Dubai and felt ambivalent towards the place at that time. The Burj was only half constructed and something about its vast, monolithic hulk drew to mind the former greatest tower of the Arab world, the Tower of Babel.
For the text I made an amalgamation of different sources that recounted the construction of Tower of Babel by slaves in their thousands. Some of the texts were rather hard hitting, for instance one spoke of a woman having to give birth and keep on working at the same time.
JD: How did you come to be based in Dubai and how do you feel about living there?
JM: I wasn’t keen to move to Dubai. When my husband was approached for a job out there I thought that visiting might be good ‘interview’ practice’, i.e. I was up for a trip with him to look round. But when he was offered the job I was a bit shocked. Terribly naïve of me! On top of that, many friends were suggesting it was not an advisable move for a composer. But I bit the bullet and tagged along, telling myself it would only be for a few years, maybe three, max.
But out in Dubai life immediately felt quieter and less internally pressurizing, as if I was away the ‘rat race’. There was a sudden expansion of my world, both geographically and internally. From a distance I felt like an onlooker on classical music scene and realized how profoundly I was grateful for it. I was no longer concerned about how I might fit into it, any preoccupations like that were removed as irrelevant. I just focused on my writing and that was freeing.
JD: What perspective does Middle East life give you on societal attitudes towards women and especially towards women in music?
JM: Everything shifted in my head when I learned Arabic. Up to that point I felt that Arab culture was an exotic side-show that friends who came to visit might be interested in seeing. I felt very detached from it. But the language is completely tied up in the culture and by learning it you turn the handle of the door and walk in to people’s lives rather than tapping on the window and waving from the outside. I found a real appetite for learning and threw myself into situations which I would formerly have found a bit disconcerting. I remember one day getting really frustrated by my speed of learning and went off banging on all the doors of our road to find someone willing to let me practice on them. I found Rula (from Jordan) now one of my best friends. Our conversations swing around between Arabic and English, full of the usual neighbourly gossip and life plans.
The majority of older Arab women across the Middle East are beholden to the males in their family, fathers or husbands with expectations that to us look like something out of the 1950s. But interestingly, there is a new generation in the Gulf who have been educated in the West, particularly in America and Britain. They retain their respect for their society’s traditions but have a broader perspective. Young Emirati women in particular have real drive and aspiration, and the city supports them with programmes designed to accelerate their career development. They are demographic that is moving forward with the greatest momentum. I am sure we will see significant social change in the Gulf over the next 10 years because of this.
Arguably the two most influential Middle Eastern artists of all time are women, Umm Kalthoum (Egypt) and Fayrouz (Lebanon). They are loved and respected over the whole of the Arab world. The language of Middle Eastern music interests me increasingly. I haven’t used it in my own music before as it felt like cultural appropriation but I am toying with the idea of borrowing a few idioms for a piece I am writing later this year.

JD: Do you think Dubai will become a more important centre for musical life in the years ahead?
JM: Now that there is a venue, the Dubai Opera, Dubai has a presence in the classical touring scene. That has already changed the perception of the place with a strong message that the programming now caters for an aware and educated public, (for example bringing BBC Proms to the Middle East). There has been classical programming in the UAE before, for example at the Abu Dhabi festival which is only an hour’s drive from Dubai, but Dubai has not generally reflected the programming you might find in a major Western concert hall. An iconic venue sends out a strong message but the fact that 1000 people will attend a concert in Dubai given by the BBC Singers suggests that there is a hunger for quality.
JD: The issue of gender equality in art music has become gigantic these past few years. Do you think we’re seeing a sea-change in the climate at last?
JM: It looks that way and that certainly gladdens my heart.  I have noticed a lot of noise on social media and I have been seeing posts on this from friends in the music business. But I only tend to fly back to England for premieres and spend some time during the summer when schools are on holiday so it’s difficult to get the true temperature on this issue.
My own issues with working as a composer over the last ten years have been specific to the difficulty of being a composer based in a country with no classical music tradition. The fact that I am a woman is incidental and actually hasn’t really made any difference to my work in Dubai.
JD: Any other forthcoming events you'd like to mention?

JM: I have a residency at Sidney Sussex Cambridge and the college choir is recording some of my choral music in March for release in October 2018 on Resonus. The disk will include pieces for Fretwork who are accompanying a few of the choral works.
Pearl of Freedom is premiered at St John's Smith Square on 31 January, 7.30pm. Further details and booking here.

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25 days ago |
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...oh, look.

It's our very own London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Australian CEO, Tim Walker, is quoted in a Telegraph article extolling the "opportunity for orchestras to escape EU red tape and re-engage with the world". 

What the actual ****?

Here, in the interests of balance, is a report from the ISM corporate members' Brexit round table discussion, exploring some of the concerns at stake, including the potential loss of flexible travel, the potential loss of opportunities for higher education, the increase in bureaucracy for Brits working abroad and the general, bewildered impression overseas that Britain has lost its mind.
Plus more from its #freemovecreate here: https://www.ism.org/news/parliamentary-committee-backs-flexible-travel-for-the-creative-industries-post-brexit

And here is the ABO report on the implications of Brexit for UK orchestras, which contains a great deal of very important reading. http://abo.org.uk/media/128619/ABO-Brexit-report.pdf

I have some questions for Tim next time I see him - but, things being as they are, it's all in the open, so here goes.

-- There's nothing wrong with being positive and looking for opportunities. I value your optimistic stance. But I would like to know to what extent the Torygraph has taken your words and twisted them to fit its own world view - and to what extent it has not.

-- What is the management doing to support the EU citizens who are long-standing members of the orchestra, given the current bargaining-chip status foisted upon them by our government? You have members from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Hungary, Latvia, Spain, Ireland, Sweden and Bulgaria. How do you think they'd feel if they thought you, their own CEO, were part of the movement that is making life so traumatic for EU citizens in Britain now?

-- The orchestra has long been going to China almost annually, so how exactly is this part of your brave new Brexit world?

-- How is the orchestra going to manage the costs and bureaucracy of customs when transporting its equipment if we get a hard Brexit that forces us to leave the Customs Union? This will mean more red tape in Europe, not less - as has been roundly proven many times in the past 19 months. And will the LPO lorry not be stuck on the M20 outside Dover for days in each direction, with all the other truckers?

-- In the same field, costs will be higher. Government coffers will be depleted as the City workers who can longer function here depart, taking with them the tax revenues they'd have provided. This will keep public investment at rockbottom for many years to come and in the arts the chances of your public grant increasing are frankly zilch. You'll need to fund all this from elsewhere. I do hope you're on the case?

-- How are you going to replace lost sponsorship from European organisations? We have heard rumours that a planned recording recently fell through because a sponsor decided not to stump up for a British orchestra.

-- How are you going to persuade a world-class conductor to come here and take over from Vladimir Jurowski when he goes, knowing their earnings will be worth so much less outside Brexit Island?

-- How are you going to continue to attract and retain such fine players? You will lose the interest and enthusiasm of the best young European orchestral musicians, who won't have the automatic right to come and work here. While we appreciate that there are many good foreign players in the orchestra from the Far East and America, the chances are that in the long term, standards will fall as fewer players will be applying to join.

-- Conditions for the musicians are already quite poor compared to those in mainland Europe. And most of the younger recruits can't afford to live in London; they spend much time and energy commuting from Lewes, Tonbridge and the like. How can you ever improve their lot if all that revenue disappears?

-- How are you going to replace the bums-on-seats that will fall victim to economic uncertainty and the lack of business confidence? In the end you need your audience. Numbers are already down this season; it appears that people are not buying anything in the way of optional extras, since Brexit has devalued the pound and sparked inflation with which earnings do not keep pace.

-- You have done much for this orchestra in artistic terms over the years. It's currently in better shape than I have ever heard it (with the one exception of Solti's Mahler 5 in 1988). You've facilitated Jurowski's leadership and taken excellent risks with programming. You've made the LPO, with Jurowski, into currently the best orchestra in London. All this achievement risks being squandered in the slag-heap of division that Brexit has sparked. Why? Why throw it all away?!?

-- In this article you do not categorically say you voted for Brexit, but neither do you categorically deny it. Did you, or did you not, vote to strip your UK members of their automatic right to live and work in 27 other European countries? If you did, do you believe they and their families will ever forgive you?

26 days ago |
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Marin Alsop's selfie from the Last Night of the Proms
Heartening news this morning that Marin Alsop has been appointed chief conductor of the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. Vienna, despite all the glories of its musical history, has never exactly been renowned for the heights of its progressive gender egalitarianism, so this announcement carries some extra heft. She'll be taking over from Cornelius Meister and will assume the post on 1 September 2019 for an initial three years - and will, of course, be the orchestra's first female chief conductor.

Now we need more splendid conductors who happen to be female to be elevated to prominent posts, where they will be worth their weight in gold both as role models for the future and as musicians in their own right and their orchestras'. Incidentally, there may well be some London orchestra jobs up for grabs in the next few years - one of them appears to have a vacancy right now - and the opportunity will be staring them in the face. Let's hope a manager or two has the foresight to approach the right person.

Jude Kelly, as you know, is leaving Southbank Centre to concentrate her energies on WOW - the Women of the World Festival. In a thoughtful interview with the Guardian the other day, she said it's not enough to be a feminist: you have to do something.

To that end, I've done something very small that I hope will be reasonably useful: I've added a sidebar section here on JDCMB devoted to resources for women in the music world. You can use this as a one-stop-shop to click through to sources of funding like the PRS Foundation's Women Make Music and the Ambache Charitable Trust, courses like RPS Women Conductors, projects like Dallas Opera's Women Conductors Institute and more. I'm on the lookout for links to add, so if you know of one that ought to be there please send it my way, preferably via Facebook or Twitter. This is about organisations that can offer support and development to many, rather than individual artists' websites. But you'll also find there a link to my Women Conductors List (it runs to well over 100 names and sites) and that is always open to updating with individual names. Thanks very much for taking a look.

Thanks, too, for the powerful response to yesterday's shoulder post. I now have recommendations of at least 10 different osteopaths!

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26 days ago |
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I've done something unspeakable to my shoulder. It may be a delayed reaction to the return journey from Johannesburg last week, with bad seat position overnight plus some ungainly moves with a heavy suitcase at Heathrow. Yesterday I spent in a fog of agony and the strongest over-the-counter painkillers Superdrug could provide, thanks to which I managed to attend a wonderful performance of Das Rheingold by the LPO/Jurowski at the Festival Hall, but without much brainpower to respond.

Friends have been kindly suggesting all manner of treatments, but I'm hesitating. That's because the very word "chiropractor" brings back a whopper of a memory from my college days: my sorry year and a half trying to recover from tennis elbow as a music student, in a university that should have known better, in a town that loathed its students on principle.

It's struck me recently - notably in the Hammerklavier project and the Korngold Violin Concerto - that sometimes we don't play the music that's there. Instead, we play our attitude to it, or what we think the right attitude is. It doesn't often do musical expression much good. That's how we get "Beethoven's Hammerklavier: I Respect It But I Don't Love It" performances, as well as deeply destructive "Korngold Is Hollywood Which Is Sentimental, So Let's Add Sugar" recordings. In both cases, the notion could not be further from the composer's intentions. We're not playing Beethoven or Korngold. We're playing our preconceptions about them. Which obviously is a rather rubbish thing to do.

Why is that relevant to sore arms? Well, it shows how our minds sometimes work. It becomes relevant when the attitude being expressed in professional performance is not to a piece of music, but to a person, and the issue is not playing a concerto or sonata, but treating a medical condition. What follows is not to denigrate the thousands of excellent, devoted and disinterested health workers who look after us all in difficult conditions day and night. It is one experience that occurred 30 years ago. I don't know how widespread such experiences are - but it seems unlikely that I'm the only person who ever encountered such a situation.

The correlation of physical to mental health - and, indeed, mental attitude - is powerful and merits the deeper investigation it has received in recent years, but it seems to be still much misunderstood. And it can work both ways. Blame the physical alone and you may miss a psychological component. But any tendency to blame the mind first and foremost would risk missing very real physical issues. In the year and a half I spent trying to recover from my tennis elbow - 1986-87 - I also came down with glandular fever. The first reaction from every practitioner I consulted in that town was that "it's all in the mind". I don't know how they'd reached that conclusion when all I'd said was that I was a second-year music student, I had a sore throat and a chronic fever and my arm hurt. They sent me to the university counselling service. I sat there saying I had a sore throat and a chronic fever and my arm hurt.

If you are a music student in a place notorious for its privilege, where everyone outside those walls - including, it appeared, some GPs and some 'alternative' practitioners - expect those from the university to roll in being entitled and stuck-up, it can be very difficult to get past this expectation. They don't see the actual person. They may not even see the injury. They see what they expect to see.

I tried the Sports Injuries Unit. Yes, there are designated hospital units for people who've sustained injuries pursuing a physical activity such as sport and they'll take remarkably good care of you if you've been playing rugby or rowing or whatever. But for a painful case of tennis elbow acquired through over-assiduous practising of the Chopin 'Revolutionary' Etude, you'd be shoved in a corner with a grudging ice-pack and some slightly ineffectual ultrasound, with tut-tutting because you haven't just injured yourself that day, you've been suffering for weeks (while you tried to get appointments for some treatment), and that's not really in their remit. The psychological message delivered with that ice-pack, surrounded by big chaps with "Football Is Life" t-shirts, is roughly: sports are good and a nice hobby, so we'll support that, but what do you mean music is your life? "I got my sprain playing centre forward. What about you?" "Playing Chopin." "Yer wot?" (The Eighties were a more polite decade than the present one, even at their most objectionable.)

Then I tried a chiropractor. I found myself facing a huge bloke from Yorkshire with a face like bacon and hands like beefsteaks, who said it was all in my neck - and proceeded to make certain that it would be. He should have been a butcher. I've never experienced, before or since, such pain at the hands of another human being (and I know I'm lucky in this respect), let alone someone who charged money for inflicting it. I remember coming out of that session dizzy and nauseous, knocking on the door of the nearest friend in the nearest college and almost passing out on her floor. Perhaps he was a rogue or a quack, I don't know, but I will never, ever try a chiropractor again.

Back in London for the holidays, I went to the family GP who'd known me since I was born. He did a blood test - which the university town GP hadn't done before sending me for counselling - and it revealed a virus of the glandular fever type. For that, there's not much you can do except take fever-reducing pain-killers and rest up with herbal tea. He prescribed anti-inflammatory pills for the arm, which helped a bit, if temporarily, and suggested a cortisone injection. I declined because a violinist in our circle of friends had had a cortisone injection in her arm for a similar problems: a mistake was made and she was left unable to play at all. But through our family GP I should probably have accepted it. I've had cortisone injections since then, carefully prepared by disinterested medical professionals with scans etc, for other problems that cleared up instantly as a result.

Still at home, I tried acupuncture next, doing a reasonable imitation of a porcupine splayed out on a table unable to free itself of its spines. They said it wouldn't hurt. It did. They said it wouldn't bruise. It did: I came out with a plum-and-charcoal-coloured hand. They said it would rebalance the energy to make the pain better. It made it worse. I've often been assured of the wonders of acupuncture since then, by some eminent musicians whose problems have been cured by it, but I think I'll give it a miss.

One day I went into a chemist to look at various on-the-shelf remedies in case I'd missed something. In a little book called 'Homeopathy for the Family' I found a recommendation for "pains in ligaments". I don't actually believe in homeopathy, but as I'd tried almost everything else, I thought I'd give it a whirl. I bought a little bottle of tiny white pills, which cost about £1.50. Two weeks later I was better.

I'm not recommending homeopathy, though. It hasn't worked for me for anything else since. I think the difference here was that at this stage I wasn't putting myself in the hands of people who, due to an institutional loathing of young people who dared to study music and play the piano, had quite possibly set out to make our conditions worse. Such an idea was absolutely unthinkable at the time. But looking back, I can't help wondering if that was the actuality behind the scenes.

My heart goes out to musicians who are suffering physical injuries and navigating minefields as they seek a solution. Today, three decades on from my experiences, the understanding of music as a physical pursuit that can give rise to physical injuries has been transformed and institutions such as the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, Help Musicians UK, the ISM and the Musicians' Union, as well as the conservatoires themselves, are brilliantly organised and supportive if you are unlucky enough to need treatment, advice, counselling or financial aid for time off. But it's sobering to think that after 30 years, I am still angry about what happened to me then.

Meanwhile, I don't know what I've done to my shoulder, but I am leaving it to voltarol and co-codamol for a few days and will avoid heavy lifting for a week or two. At least now I don't have to practise the 'Revolutionary' Study.

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27 days ago |
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