JDCMB
Jessica
JDCMB is Jessica Duchen's Classical Music Blog. Music & writing, with ginger, in London, UK. Author & journalist JD writes for The Independent.
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This is an edited version of the talk I gave at the Wigmore Hall last Saturday, introducing a programme that consisted of the Debussy Violin Sonata and both of Prokofiev's, plus Pärt's Fratres, gloriously played by Alina Ibragimova and Steven Osborne. Enjoy...


Did anyone see Benvenuto Cellini the other night at ENO? Well, I hope that by the time we’ve finished here, you might want to – because this is going to have quite a lot to do with Berlioz. Alina and Steven’s programme focuses chiefly on Debussy and Prokofiev, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the inter-influences between Russian and French music over the decades, indeed nearly a century, before their sonatas were written. I’d like offer you a kind of treasure-trail – a long-distance game of musical ping-pong between these cultures. We’ll look as far back as 1830 and follow the path forward to the points at which Debussy and Prokofiev each breaks away to write violin sonatas that represent them at their most pure, distilled and independent. By embedding both of them in this background, looking at their musical roots, I hope we can gain extra appreciation of and perspective upon their branches.
Let’s turn the clock back, first, by nearly 90 years. In 1830, a new piece exploded onto the consciousness of the French music-loving public: the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique. Even today it seems quite extraordinary to realize it was composed so early - only three years after Beethoven died, and two after Schubert. Berlioz really is phenomenal. If you go to hear Cellini, which dates from 1838, you’ll hear vocal and choral writing that is almost impossibly ambitious, and harmonies that would have been startling even in Wagner. Along comes this visionary, larger-than-life composer, with the sheer scale of his thinking, the dazzling range of his orchestration, the imagination to make music nearly as powerful a narrative force as literature and the courage to dare everything – which is what Benvenuto Cellini is really about.
Much of Parisian musical society, though, didn’t know what on earth to make of Berlioz. All his life he struggled for appreciation at home. Musicians elsewhere, though, were listening with more open ears – notably, in Russia. Berlioz toured there several times, to great acclaim, his last trip taking place close to the end of his life, and it was on that occasion that he met Tchaikovsky.
In Russia, Mikhail Glinka was the forerunner of a group of composers who were eager to build on his achievements: they are known as The Five: Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. But slightly aside from them stood Tchaikovsky – a colossus in his own right, the most westernized of the Russians and the closest to the world of ballet, in which guise so much Russian influence soon came to the west. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker offer exquisite orchestration and remarkable sound pictures that were certainly affected by his colleagues, especially Rimsky, but that travelled particularly well.
Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest Tchaikovsky summed up Pyotr’s attitude to Berlioz like this:
“Whilst he bowed down before the significance of Berlioz in contemporary music and gave him his due as a great reformer, chiefly in the sphere of orchestration, Pyotr Ilyich did not feel any enthusiasm for his music…But, although he displayed a sober attitude, free of any blind enthralment, towards Berlioz's works, he felt otherwise about Berlioz's personality during his visit to Moscow. In the eyes of the young composer the latter was above all, as he himself says, the embodiment of 'selfless hard work and ardent love of art'. Moreover, he was an old man worn down by the years and by illness, persecuted by Fate and by people, and for Pyotr Ilyich it was gratifying to be able to comfort him and warm his heart even just for a moment with a fiery manifestation of sympathy. Finally, in the person of Berlioz there stood before him the first great composer whose acquaintance he had had occasion to make, and the feeling of piety which as a young artist he understandably felt for his great colleague could not leave him indifferent. Like everyone who seriously loved music in Russia, he received Berlioz enthusiastically and all his life retained fond memories of his meeting with him.”
A lot of the issues in Russian and French music in the mid to late 19th century are really about a quest for national identity. It’s interesting to note those words about Berlioz being the first great composer Tchaikovsky had met. Russia, having not really had a national identity in classical music, had been importing some, the process started by Peter the Great. But it was down to Glinka’s successors to create their musical nationalism by adding to the mix sounds from the folk music of Russia and its surrounding nations and ethnic groups, making these part and parcel of their compositions. Before that, great composers were there not.
France, ironically, was also slow on the uptake. Its 19th-century musical establishment was seriously, appallingly stuffy, despite Paris being an artistic capital second only to Vienna - home to Chopin and Liszt, besides such operatic wonders as Meyerbeer, who may not have been the greatest thing ever, but was enormously influential, not least on Wagner. Yet these composers were respectively Polish, Hungarian and German. There was little by way of a French national language in music that could be clearly identified. The lyrical concision of melody that characterized Gounod, for instance, or the sparkle of Saint-Saens, is traceable mainly to influences like Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
After Wagner’s operas exploded onto the scene, the noxious combination of his overwhelming musical personality plus France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War led to seismic upheavals. In 1872 Saint-Saens, with a group of younger composers including Fauré, Chausson and Duparc, formed the Societé Nationale de Musique with the express intention of creating a uniquely French style of music, independent from German influence.
Now, if you are not going to let yourself be influenced by German music, but you do find examples from overseas more interesting than what your own country has been turning up, what are you going to do? You aren’t going to look at Italy, where opera dominated even more. You aren’t going to look at England, because there’s nothing much to look at. You’re going to look at Russia. Where there is, by now, plenty. Not least thanks to the influence of Berlioz. And you may be French, drawing on Russian influence, but you may not even realize that what you are actually drawing on is a French composer’s influence on Russia!
Here’s one little progression to illustrate this bit of ping-pong. Ravel admired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. When he was writing Daphnis and Chloe, he got stuck over the final Danse générale and eventually he put the score of Scheherazade’s final movement on his piano, and said he ‘humbly tried to write something similar’.
Here’s Rimsky, then Ravel. And when you hear them both, try remembering, too, Berlioz’s rumbunctious Witches Sabbath from the Symphonie fantastique.
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Scheherazade finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RX9Bhps-SQ
RAVEL Daphnis finale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RppyDbRh8Sc
The chief point of confluence here was of course Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. And it was Mikhail Fokine’s exotic and sexy choreography for Scheherazade which brought that piece to everyone’s ears in Paris, including Ravel’s. The influx began in 1906, when Diaghilev held an exhibition of Russian art in Paris, creating a fascination there with all matters Russian. Two years later he put on Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov starring Feodor Chaliapin and then in 1909 he held a ballet season in which the Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor, music by Borodin, created a sensation. The colour, energy, vitality and exoticism of ballet as gesamtkunstwerk, with the soaring standard of all its elements, dance, choreography, music and design – all this made a vast impact. Thereafter Diaghilev’s commissions included Ravel’s Daphnis as well as Stravinsky’s first three ballets, The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. I don’t need to tell you what happened in 1913 when they premiered the last of those.
Diaghilev is what Debussy and Prokofiev had in common. Debussy was, of course, at the height of his powers and enormously famous by the time Diaghilev came to Paris. He had less to gain from the connection than his younger compatriot, Ravel, and much less to gain than the youthful Prokofiev. But we still benefit from his limited association because his commission – after an initial approach in 1909 that came to nothing - was the ballet score Jeux, in 1912, in which a tennis match leads its two couples into games of a very different kind.
Its choreographer, Nijinsky, also choreographed Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune in 1912, ending with an erotic gesture that caused a huge scandal. Debussy himself steered clear of both ballet and scandal. And he didn’t much like Nijinsky’s approach to Jeux. Here’s how he described him: “Nijinsky’s perverse genius applied itself to a special branch of mathematics!” he wrote. “The man adds up demisemiquavers with his feet, checks the result with his arms and then, suddenly struck with paralysis all down one side, glares at the music as it goes past. I gather it’s called the stylisation of gesture. It’s awful!”
In 1913 Prokofiev, then aged 22, travelled to London and Paris for the first time and made contact with Diaghilev. The impresario nurtured the young composer by commissioning a ballet score entitled Ala and Lolli; but when Prokofiev handed it over in 1915 Diaghilev rejected it as “unRussian”. This seems a little perverse, since it was always going to be modelled on influences from the Scythian culture of central Asia. Parts of it eventually morphed into the Scythian Suite. But then Diaghilev asked Prokofiev for another score, this time Chout. And as Prokofiev was still quite inexperienced with ballet, the choreographer Leonid Massine and Diaghilev himself guided him closely through the process. The result, premiered in 1921, was a major success – Ravel called it ‘a work of genius’ - and it was followed later by The Prodigal Son, which was choreographed by George Balanchine in Paris in 1929. These paved the way for Prokofiev’s Soviet ballets – Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, among his best-loved works to this day. There was a further ballet for Diaghilev, too, entitled Le pas acier, or The Steel Step, supposedly portraying the industrialisation of the Soviet Union.
This plentiful experience in ballet music was, I think, a lasting influence on Prokofiev, whose fairy-tale feel for colour, elan, rhythm and musical storytelling never left him. The Second Violin Sonata is more or less contemporaneous with Cinderella, and, I think, audibly so. More about that piece in a minute.
If Debussy and Prokofiev’s paths crossed in Paris during those years when Prokofiev was the enthusiastic young blood and Debussy the grand master near the end of his life, there’s precious little sign of it. Still, even if Debussy didn’t know Prokofiev, Prokofiev certainly knew Debussy’s music – and according to his son’s reminiscences, one of his favourite works was the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.
Debussy had other Russian connections – and vital formative ones they were. In 1880, in his late teens, he found an interesting summer job with Tchaikovsky’s legendary patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.
Here’s her first impression of him, a letter of 10 July 1880: “Two days ago a young pianist arrived from Paris where he has just graduated from the Conservatoire with the first prize. I engaged him for the summer to give lessons to the children, accompany Julia’s singing and play four hands with me. This young man plays well, his technique is brilliant, but he lacks any personal expression. He is yet too young, says he is twenty but looks 16…”
She described Debussy to Tchaikovsky as her “little Frenchman”. Indeed, she became very fond of him and while he stayed with the family they played through duet versions of several big Tchaikovsky pieces. She told Tchaikovsky that Debussy was enchanted with his music. He made arrangements for duet of some of the national dances from Swan Lake, including the Spanish dance; his very first publication, apparently, was a Tchaikovsky arrangement that came out in Russia; and when he went home he took with him scores for Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and the opera The Maid of Orleans. He was young, intelligent and impressionable and soaked up music like the proverbial sponge.
Here is Romeo and Juliet…listen to the horn at around 8:54 to 9:56https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Od7gx3Dc-U
And here is the Debussy. Listen to the woodwind around 5:50...http://youtu.be/bYyK922PsUw
If that's a coincidence, I'll eat my hat...
Tchaikovsky was not so impressed with young Debussy, though, assessing the little Frenchman’s Danse bohemienne and declaring to von Meck that the form was “bungled”.
Now Tchaikovsky may not have been in thrall to Berlioz, but he was far from immune to him. He once said: “It is Berlioz who must be considered the true founder of programme music, for every composition of his not only bears a specific title, but is furnished with a detailed explanation, a copy of which is supposed to be in the listener's hands during the performance.” I doubt we’d have had his Romeo and Julietoverture without Berlioz’s example. 
Other French music had made a big impact on him, especially Bizet’s Carmen – the Fate motif proved a particular inspiration – and I think some crucial influences from Berlioz aren’t difficult to detect. We’re all too familiar with the applause that often follows the third movement of the Pathetique symphony, that rather brash and hollow march, which creates an expectation that it’s the end, when it’s not. The precedent for a supposedly triumphal march followed by something terrifyingly different was set in no uncertain terms by the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, where the march to the scaffold is mock-triumphal and followed by the witches' sabbath. Tchaikovsky was apparently not an enthusiast over the Symphonie fantastique – he much preferred La Damnation de Faust. But the precedent was there and if there is any doubting the bleak, grotesque impact of Tchaikovsky’s march and the tragedy that follows it, just look at what Berlioz was doing with his and the flavour is somewhat enhanced.
So there again, there’s the progression - Berlioz to Tchaikovsky to Debussy. But by the time we reach Debussy’s musical maturity, issues of musical nationalism are becoming stronger than ever before, in new, less cross-fertilised ways.
The trouble with musical nationalism is that it can be symptomatic of other kinds of nationalism on the rise around it. It has a way of finishing in wars. Both Debussy and Prokofiev were to go through considerable traumas as a result of the wars during in their respective lifetimes; their lives, their thinking and their music were deeply affected.
Debussy was only a child at the time of the Franco-Prussian War and he was fortunate thereafter to spend most of his life in peaceful times; but when the First World War broke out he was no longer in good health. It was around then that he began to suffer from the cancer that would eventually kill him in 1918, even as Paris was under bombardment.
He was ten years old when Saint-Saens was forming the Societé Nationale de Musique in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, and if later on writing music that was essentially French and that escaped Wagnerism became a preoccupation with Debussy, it was musically rather than politically inspired. But the First World War changed all that.
When Debussy composed what turned out to be his final completed works, the three instrumental sonatas – though originally he intended six – his outlook was close indeed to the manifesto of the original Societe Nationale. He was trying to create pure instrumental music that was free of influence from outside and that possessed instead what he felt to be characteristically French qualities. But to do so he now had to look back a very long way - beyond Wagner, beyond Tchaikovsky, beyond Berlioz and even beyond Mozart, turning to the French baroque, notably composers such as Rameau, Couperin and Leclair.
He wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand, in August 1915: “I want to work – not so much for myself, as to provide a proof, however small, that 30 million Boches can’t destroy French thought, even when they’ve tried undermining it first before obliterating it.” Later he reflected in another letter: “What about French music? Where are our old harpsichordists who produced real music in abundance? They held the secret of that graceful profundity, that emotion without epilepsy, which we shy away from like ungrateful children…”
In his Violin Sonata he captures that quality to perfection. Here’s some of it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zni48ORjFog
And so Debussy may have begun his career under the shadow of Tchaikovsky and Wagner – but he finished it by breaking free of all external impacts, for the same nationalist reasons that at one time attracted composers to borrow from one another’s traditions. On the manuscript of his sonatas he signed himself simply "Claude Debussy, musician français".
Composers’ chamber music works often reveal their musical thinking at its most private – think, for instance, of Brahms’s clarinet quintet, or Shostakovich’s string quartets. I reckon Debussy is no exception – and Prokofiev, too, finding the intimacy in his chamber music to express everything he could not put into larger public works in the era of Stalin.
Interestingly enough, it seems that Prokofiev probably performed the Debussy Violin Sonata himself, on tour in a duo with the violinist Robert Soetens in 1935.
There’s one more influence from France which contributed to bringing Prokofiev’s Second Violin Sonata into being. This piece dates from 1942, it was the first of the pair to be completed – and it’s not really a violin sonata at all. It was originally written for flute and piano and was apparently inspired – in memory – by the great French flautist Georges Barrère. 
Barrère was one of a powerful line of great French flautists, who also included Paul Taffanel and Philippe Gaubert, and would later extend to Marcel Moyse, Jean-Philippe Rampal. The French repertoire is replete with works conceived for them, including pieces like Fauré’s Fantaisie, Poulenc’s Flute Sonata, Ibert’s Flute Concerto, Debussy’s Syrinx, the big solo in Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe and of course the opening of Debussy’s L’Après-midi  – which we’ve also noted was a favourite of Prokofiev’s. Moyse was another particularly significant example: a friend of Ravel and Enescu and creator of a method of flute playing that’s used by student flautists all over the world, he played under the batons of both Rimsky-Korsakov and of Prokofiev himself. He once declared: “I long ago observed that the real beauty of the sound comes from the generosity of the heart.”
In Russia the flute tradition was less developed than it was in France. The great violinist David Oistrakh spotted the likely lack of demand for this sonata and suggested Prokofiev should rework it for violin. Prokofiev embraced the opportunity and the result was every bit as successful as Oistrakh had hoped. Here he is, playing it, with pianist Vladimir Yampolsky.
http://youtu.be/PZCis9f4who
But our next criss-crossing of France and Russia is more physical...and concerns why Prokofiev, having left Revolutionary Russia for France, eventually decided to go back again. 
He was not a political animal. He appears to have been rather single-minded about his music; he was also something of a dandy, loving to wear good suits, yellow shoes and plenty of aftershave. But it is ironic that a man preoccupied only with art, love and his adopted religion of Christian Science should have been caught up in seismic political events that changed the face of the planet, and it was inevitable that from time to time their impact would find some expression in his music.
Prokofiev escaped the 1917 revolution in Russia and spent the next decade abroad. He was in the US for around four years, he spent a year in Bavaria writing his opera The Fiery Angel, but the rest of the time he was in France, where, among other things, he worked with Diaghilev. In 1927 he went back to Russia for the first time, encouraged by friends who told him that his music was popular there and he would be greeted with enthusiasm. He found it a very different country from the one he’d left, but he was indeed welcomed back with considerable triumph. That acclaim haunted him thereafter.
Several factors conspired to create the mindset that returned Prokofiev for good to the USSR in, of all times, the mid 1930s. First, after Diaghilev died in 1929, his ballets dropped out of the repertoire and he was left short of a vital commissioning patron. Besides, he was homesick. In a 1933 interview, he said:
“Foreign air does not suit my inspiration, because I am Russian, and that is to say the least suited of men to be an exile, to remain myself in a psychological climate that isn’t of my race. My compatriots and I carry our country about with us. Not all of it, to be sure, but a little bit, just enough for it to be faintly painful at first, then increasingly so, until at last it breaks us down altogether.”

There could have been warning signs. In 1929, trying to get his ballet Le pas d’acier staged at the Bolshoi, Prokofiev faced tough questioning from the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, who challenged him over living abroad and whether a factory in the piece was a capitalist one or soviet. Perhaps it’s a measure of the composer’s ignorance of what had been going on in the USSR that he was furious and declared “That concerns politics, not music, so therefore I won’t answer.” The ballet was rejected.  
The next issue was purely musical. His personal leanings towards traditional forms, clarity of expression and a more traditional outlook than was being taken by contemporary composers in France at the time, let alone in Vienna, made him feel that the USSR might be the place for him. Desiring to create melodic music that large numbers of people could and would enjoy, Prokofiev felt his outlook was perhaps not so far off the official line. He once declared that he wanted to create music that would appeal to people in the Soviet Union discovering music for the first time, aiming to invent ‘a new simplicity’. The Soviet authorities were only too happy to encourage him – his return would be a massive PR coup. He spent much of 1935 there working on his ballet Romeo and Juliet, but in 1936 he was permitted to leave again for a tour, so he was away when Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was denounced in the newspaper Pravda, apparently for tickling "the perverted tastes of the bourgeoisie".
Prokofiev himself was attacked for his artistic outlook at this time - but he wasn’t there, knew nothing about it and wasn’t told the full story when he return. So instead of getting out while the going was good, he wrote Peter and the Wolf, enjoyed a huge triumph and settled happily in a nice apartment with his wife and family, just in time for Stalin’s ‘terror’. Fortunately he remained unscathed, though he incurred plenty of jealousy. Then he wrote an enormous cantata for the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution - only for it to be rejected out of hand.
He made his last foreign tour in 1938 and was offered a very nice contract in Hollywood to write film music. He turned it down: his sons were still in Moscow and he had to go home to them.
It was in the winter of 1938 that he began to write sketches for his first violin sonata. He had been working on film music with Sergei Eisenstein for Alexander Nevsky and was surrounded by the terrible purges of the Terror. Between 1936 and 38 about 7 million Russians were arrested, some half a million public figures were shot and hundreds of thousands more sent to the gulags. By the winter of 1940 Prokofiev found himself having to write celebrations of Stalin’s glorious society even while some of his closest friends were arrested, tortured and killed.
When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, Prokofiev was evacuated with a number of other artistic figures, together with his mistress, the poet Mira Mendelson, for whom he had left his wife. They went first to the Caucuses, then to Tblisi in Georgia, and he took his violin sonata in progress with him. 
The Violin Sonata No.1 is much less famous than its sibling no.2, but it is by far the more personal. It’s an almost unremittingly dark piece and near the close of the first movement and again at the end of the entire piece there’s an eerie scalic effect which he described as suggestive of a wind blowing through a graveyard. Here is a complete recording by Oistrakh with the pianist Lev Oborin.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmKCbkvLm-o
Prokofiev’s health was never the same again after the war. He was chronically ill for his last eight years and died in 1953 on the self-same day as Stalin. The first and third movements of his Violin Sonata No.1 were played at his funeral.
Think how much the world had changed. Debussy lived only long enough to trumpet his nationalist colours at the end of his life, but Prokofiev, born a prodigy with a pushy mother into the world of Tsars, Tchaikovsky and The Five, started off living the hopeful life of a composer who believed that politics and music could be separate, and paid the price by ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time even though he’d had the chance not to. 
You could see him as a hero who stood by his inner convictions and followed his heart. You could see him as an impossibly naïve and blinkered artist, hoist on his own petard. You could forgive him everything, as he lacked the luxury of hindsight. Or you could see in him the tragic story of one who devoted a wealth of talent to ideals that were to prove doomed and deadly. The story, perhaps, of Russia itself.
Now, one person from tonight’s programme has been missing and it’s Arvo Pärt and his piece Fratres. I apologise for sidelining him in favour of the Debussy and Prokofiev narratives – and I am sure that Fratres will be familiar since there can be few contemporary pieces that have been conscripted so often for film and TV. But there is one little footnote to add that ties it to our other pieces. Diaghilev was largely responsible for turning ballet into a gesamtkunstwerk, with Debussy as occasional prop and Prokofiev as musical heir apparent. Last week I went to Covent Garden to see a brand-new ballet entitled Connectome, with amazing designs by Es Devlin, fine choreography by Alastair Marriott and dancing by today’s greatest ballerina, Natalia Osipova. It really was a gesamtkunstwerk. And the music was four pieces by Arvo Pärt – beginning with Fratres. Do see it if you can.



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It's the big 150th anniversary today, so here is a little something to celebrate, with pics from my visit to Garmisch in 2012. First, the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in one of the composer's most beautiful and ardently summery songs, 'Heimliche Aufforderung'. And you can watch the whole of Der Rosenkavalier from Glyndebourne free online here, starring Kate Royal, Teodora Gheorghiu and, of course, the fabulous Tara Erraught, whose star shines bright. 






It is often said that behind every great man there is a great woman; but not every great composer can claim to have achieved a long and happy – if somewhat tempestuous – marriage to his muse. The soprano Pauline de Ahna was the powerful presence behind Richard Strauss: his wife, his inspiration and a diva in every sense. Over his many decades he drew on plenty of different spurs to musical action, but none more consistently or more powerfully than the soprano voice.
Strauss’s operas remain arguably his finest achievements and the Royal Opera House has already marked the 150th anniversary of his birth with a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), the most complex, symbolic and magical of his collaborations with the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Despite its baffling fairytale premise, it deals at heart with matters that are human and domestic: the longing for a family.
Strauss was born into the centre of the German operatic world; his father, Franz Joseph Strauss, was the principal horn player at the Munich Court Opera. Loathing the music of Bavaria’s local megastar, Richard Wagner, Franz Strauss was the only member of the orchestra who did not stand up in respect when the composer’s death was announced to them. His son took a different view: “I remember clearly how, at the age of 17 I feverishly devoured the score of Tristan [und Isolde] and fell into a rapturous ecstasy,” he recalled.
In his teens he composed prolifically; and Hans von Bülow (the first husband of Cosima Liszt, who then married Wagner) helped him to secure his first conducting post in Meiningen when he was only 21. Later he held vital posts as conductor in Munich, Weimar and Vienna; film exists of him on the podium in advanced age at the Salzburg Festival.
He announced his engagement to Pauline de Ahna shortly after the soprano – starring in his first (and not very successful) opera, Guntram – had astonished the musicians in rehearsal by throwing a piano score at him. She was, he later wrote, “very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before". They settled in 1908 on the outskirts of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where Strauss built a substantial jugendstil villa with the proceeds of Salome’s success; his study housed an Art Deco desk with a specially commissioned matching piano (pictured above).
“My wife is often a little harsh,” he is reported to have said, “but you know, I need that.” Not everybody did. Indeed, her cantankerous personality attracted note from many quarters. In the late 1920s my grandmother-in-law was dining in a restaurant at Kochelsee, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, when she spotted at a nearby table her father’s occasional skat (card game) companion Richard Strauss and his wife. The waiter apologized to Frau Strauss: they were out of the fish she wanted. He offered her, instead, a nice fresh Saibling. “I don’t want that scheisse [shitty] fish!” the great lady expostulated, according to grandma-in-law.
“Strauss would never have become a great man without Pauline,” insisted the composer’s friend Manfred Mautner-Markhof. The pair’s volatile relationship left its mark directly upon Strauss’s music, notably in both the Symphonia Domesticaand the tone poem Ein Heldenleben – in the latter she is personified by a solo violin. But above all, her presence is felt in the power and sensuality with which he wrote for the female voice, whether in the frenzied finale scene of Salome, the celebrated trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier, or the ecstatic and soaring lines of his solo songs, including his wedding present to Pauline, Cäcilie.
It was another area of Strauss’s life that housed his most difficult moments. In 1933 – by which time he was nearly 70 – he was made head of the Nazi administration’s Reichsmusikkammer, a state music institute that aimed to promote “good German music” by Aryans. Declaring that he had been appointed without being consulted first, Strauss said – perhaps naively – that he hoped he could “do good and prevent greater misfortune”. He was forced to resign, though, in 1935 when a letter he had written to Stefan Zweig, the Jewish librettist of his opera Die Schweigsame Frau, was intercepted by the Gestapo and found to contain cynical words about the regime.
His attitude towards the Nazis in the ensuing years contained loathing, but also bursts of sociability – not idealistic as much as self-interestedly pragmatic. Ultimately both Nazis and anti-Nazis judged Strauss “a total bystander” or, as Goebbels, put it, “unpolitical, like a child”. Nobody could escape the fact that he was by then the greatest living German composer – yet also an intractable soul, uninvolved and caring only for his family and his work.
Nevertheless, he expected too much of the Third Reich. Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish; her mother was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Terezin. The composer drove to its gates believing he could rescue her by pulling rank; but the guards would have none of it. Eventually he was publicly humiliated by Goebbels for having made disparaging remarks about Lehár, Hitler’s favourite composer of operetta. “The art of tomorrow is different from the art of yesterday,” Goebbels said to him. “You, Herr Strauss, are yesterday!”
Strauss’s music, though, had the last word. In 1948, the year before he died, he completed his Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. Here the musical language may belong to an earlier age, but its beauty and universality transcend any such concerns. The last song, “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset) describes an elderly couple spending the quiet evening of their lives together. “Is this perhaps death?” asks the soprano, while two flutes evoke a pair of larks rising towards the heavens. It was his last and perhaps most perfect offering to his beloved muse, the soprano voice. On 8 September 1949 he died, aged 85. Pauline outlived him by just eight months.
Pictured right: a statue of Beethoven that stands in Strauss's house. The story goes that when the Americans arrived in the area at the end of the war and turned up at the villa to investigate, one of them asked Strauss who this was. The somewhat unimpressed composer told them it was the Gauleiter of Garmisch.
(This is an adjusted version of my article that appeared in The Independent in January.)




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It's the deadline from hell. If Benvenuto Cellini hasn't cast his golden Perseus statue by morning, the Pope will have him hanged. But it has to be now that his rival in love arrives, demanding that he fight a duel this minute. In comes his girlfriend, saying she's run away from home and wants to live with him. Her father runs in after her to say no, no, she has to marry the other guy. Then the foundry workers go on strike because they haven't been paid. The project seems doomed. The flames are blazing, the noose is raised and Cellini is running out of time.

What does he do? He sings a big aria about how he'd like to move to the mountains and be a drover instead.

Any creative artist in the audience is won by then - 3/4 of the way through - because this character has such a ring of truth to him. But then, they're probably won anyway. This rip-roaring, totally bonkers, "semi-serious" opera (yes, that is a genre) in Terry Giliam's brand-new staging at ENO is a knockout from overture to final curtain.

Admittedly it is not the greatest opera ever written - sometimes Berlioz nearly drowns in the well of his own ambition (something that meanwhile happens on stage to our slightly stuffy baddy, Fierabosco). Still, it contains several top-notch arias, particularly in the second half, and some stonking choruses, including one that's much of what we usually know as the Roman Carnival Overture, portraying, well, a Roman carnival - and sung at a tremendous lick while stilt walkers, acrobats, a trapeze artist in a hoop and circus fun are going at full tilt all around.

"Applaud and laud all art and artisans!" sings the chorus, raising the roof - and we rather wanted to join in, because here at last is a work of art that praises the creation of works of art, throws its whole weight behind the artist - however dissolute - and declares with enormous conviction and passion that art is a matter of life and death. Here who dares wins. For Cellini, read Berlioz. And for Berlioz, add Gilliam, who seems to have found the perfect piece to suit his own creative personality. Production and music match to a tee: huge-hearted, overwhelmingly warm and generous, ridiculously OTT and full of thrills.

It's less tricksy than Gilliam's take on The Damnation of Faust, and unlike that production he does stick to telling the story. Nor is it excessively Pythonian, despite the part where everyone is dressed up as monks, trying to abduct the soprano (the reference, with mirrors further confusing matters, is more Marx Brothers than Monty Python). Theatricality is everything: giant carnival figures are paraded through the audience, glittery confetti bursts from the ceiling and twirls down upon us, and inspired coups include the set's inspiration from Piranesi, the final unveiling of the great statue, and a rather creative approach to visualising a tuba cadenza.

The words, in a translation by Charles Hart, award-winning lyricist of The Phantom of the Opera, are very wordy, sometimes cumbersomely so, rich in alliteration and certainly not designed to make life easy for the chorus. They are, though, extraordinarily clever at times and their flair matches Berlioz's and Gilliam's in spirit. One magnificent twist finds "Applaud and laud all art and artisans" transformed into "Applaud and laud all tarts and courtesans".

Tenor Michael Spyres is a strong, beefy, bold Cellini in every sense - it's a huge role with some stratospheric moments to which he gives his all. Corinne Winters is extrovert, sassy and in terrific voice as his beloved Teresa; and Sir Willard White as the Pope is as inspired a piece of casting as one's ever seen, besides the glory of his voice. Highlights in the supporting cast include Paula Murrihy as Ascanio, the business manager, who has the second-best aria in the whole piece, and the duo of Nicky Spence and David Soar as the foremen. Applaud and laud Ed Gardner and the orchestra, perhaps most of all, for holding this sprawling virtuoso feast together, turning it into a musical kite and letting it fly.

As for Gilliam and his creative team, they got a standing ovation, turning the convention of 'director's opera' on its head (the creatives' bow is usually when the booing kicks in). I don't know if the former Python is ushering in a new era of director's opera with a very different meaning - ambitious, theatrical stagings that are true to the spirit of the piece and that everybody is itching to see - or if he's a one-off. I suspect the latter. But he really can cut the operatic mustard, so what's next for him? How about a Ring cycle? Go on, Tez. You know you want to.

We don't do star ratings out of five here on JDCMB, but if we did, this would be a six. (Update: my colleague at the Indy doesn't agree and gives it a two. It's five from the Telegraph and four from the Guardian and The Arts Desk.)

If you can't get to a show, go and see the live relay in the cinema on 17 June.

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Some potentially explosive stuff in my "Insiders Anonymous" piece for Classical Music Magazine this month: how conducting careers can be made or unmade, especially if you're a woman..... It is not a pretty tale. The magazine has kindly brought it out from behind the paywall, so do have a read.
http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/features/insiders-anonymous-the-female-conductor/
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My latest column for Amati.com, entitled "Dress-Down Sigh Day", is a little about what people wear to the theatre, but also a lot about the way Britain (well, London) has changed recently, while the populist rhetoric about "elitism" hasn't kept pace with reality, let alone prices. Starting points: UKIP's 2010 manifesto, "Taragate" and a glorious outfit that a guy at the ballet was wearing the other day. Read it here.
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On Saturday evening at the Wigmore Hall I'm doing a pre-concert talk before Alina Ibragimova? and Steven Osborne?'s recital. It will be a sort of Franco-Russian treasure trail full of exciting musical connections, some of which are even relevant to Debussy and Prokofiev. Do come along - am anticipating a sensational concert.
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So there’s this dead parrot… A strange start indeed for a French 19th-century rom-com. But this is no common stage work: it is Vert-Vert by Jacques Offenbach, France’s finest composer of operetta, creator of such classic favourites as Orpheus in the Underworld and La belle Hélène. For Garsington Opera at Wormsley, the director Martin Duncan has joined forces with the conductor and Offenbachophile David Parry to offer a new staging of this little-performed madcap comedy, brilliant in its musical hues and light as a feather.
Hot on the heels of Garsington’s 2012 production of the same composer’s La Périchole, this is the latest in a succession of Offenbach gems that Parry has been pro-active in polishing up for today’s audiences. He masterminded an Offenbach celebration CD, Entre Nous, for Opera Rara in 2007, continued with a complete recording of Vert-Vertthree years later, and has never looked back. (The clip above is from the recording and features Toby Spence and Jennifer Larmore, who aren't at Garsington, just so you know.)
Try not to hold a hot drink while you read the synopsis. Having lost their beloved bird, Vert-Vert, the young ladies of a convent school decide they must find a new mascot and settle upon an innocent lad named Valentin, changing his name to the parrot’s for the purpose. Whisked away to visit his aunt, though, Valentin soon finds himself in an inn, surrounded by soldiers and singers… Before long he has learned to swear, drink and fall in love - and has even been elevated to the status of star tenor.
“The parrot is only an excuse,” Duncan assures us. “Yes, it opens in a girls’ convent school and they bury a dead parrot in the first five minutes. But after that it becomes very human and touching: it’s the story of a young man’s journey to adulthood.”
Comedy can be a tall order to stage, especially in opera. Duncan, himself a distinguished actor, has been coaching Garsington’s young cast in the tricks of the trade. “I know it’s a cliché, but comedy is a very serious business,” he says. “You have to treat it seriously and then the humour comes out, but if you start trying to be funny, it’s really not funny for the audience. Singers have a double whammy because they’re not used to dialogue and comic dialogue is even harder. With a piece like this one, which is a bit crazy, it’s essential that everyone in the cast has a real belief in their predicaments.”
Vert-Vert is being performed in English, with a translation by Parry himself. He is full of praise for the score: the leading roles, he says, are as demanding as those of Offenbach’s most famous opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, while “the music is definitely superior to Orpheus in the Underworld” (the one that features the world’s most famous can-can).  
Starring Robert Murray as Valentin and Fflur Wyn as his sweetheart, Mimi, Garsington’s new production gives us the chance to judge for ourselves.
Vert-Vert, Garsington Opera at Wormsley, from 7 June. Box office: 01865 361636


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The great violinist Jelly d'Arányi, muse to Ravel, Vaughan Williams, Bartók and many other composers (maybe even Elgar), was born on this day in 1893. The woman for whom Tzigane was created is today remembered far too little, yet the more one digs into her life, the more fascinating it becomes. She was the great-niece of Joseph Joachim - her elder sister Adila Fachiri (her married name), herself a fabulous violinist, was among his last pupils and was at his bedside when he died.

Jelly's life housed countless mysteries. One of the most intriguing is that she enjoyed a duo with Myra Hess for some 20 years, yet merits scarcely a mention in passing in Hess's largest biography to date (I've been trying to find out what went wrong between them, but so far to little avail). She never married, but the great love of her life is said to have been the Australian composer and Olympic rowing champion Frederick Septimus Kelly, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. And she gave the UK premiere of the Schumann Violin Concerto in February 1938: as for the famed "spirit messages" from Schumann asking her to track down and perform the piece, which was suppressed by Clara, Joachim and Brahms after the composer's death, there's no doubt that she certainly believed that her messages were genuine - and that they proved effective in restoring the concerto to life.

Please listen to her, Felix Salmond and Myra Hess playing the slow movement of Schubert's Piano Trio in B flat major.

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Trifonov: Fazioli fan
Seems that some piano wars are afoot at the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. Apparently a startling five out of the six finalists have chosen to play their concertos on a Fazioli piano, rather than the more usual Steinway.

We understand that the competition has the use of a Fazioli concert grand that Daniil Trifonov - winner of the last Rubinstein Competition - selected himself. (Correction: turns out it is not the same one he recently used in London. Angela Hewitt is playing that one tonight, right here...) Meanwhile, we hear that Francesco Piemontesi is also playing a Fazioli for his Wigmore Hall recital today.

Steinway has dominated the piano scene for such a long time that it's most intriguing to find its dominance being challenged to this extent by a new generation of young pianists.

But do remember one thing: it ain't what you've got, it's what you do with it...

The competition is live-streaming its finals. First lot went yesterday, second lot later today.

The finalists are:
Antonii Baryshevskyi (Ukraine)
Seong Jin Cho (South Korea)
Leonardo Colafelice (Italy)
Steven Lin (US)
Maria Mazo (Russia)
Andrejs Osokins (Latvia)
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"Taragate" got me thinking about what makes the difference between a good opera experience and a bad one. And once you remember that music, alone among the arts, can be used as torture, it all becomes pretty clear. I've written about this in my latest piece for Amati.com - read it here.

What would induce you to make a bid for theatrical escape?
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