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Whilst there are a few works of Boulez I find to be very mediocre (Derive, Mémoriale, (“…explosante-fixe…”), both Incises and Sur Incises, and a few others), and I’m by no means convinced that various lush re-orchestrations of earlier works constitute an improvement, nonetheless he remains one of the most significant figures of the second half of the 20th century to me, and one whose work shows a greater consistency across the breadth of his output than, say, that of Stockhausen (who spent about 35 years mostly up his own arse, slowly going mad, with just the odd decent work).

All of this is to ignore Boulez’s seminal role as conductor, apologist for not just “new music” but for Debussy’s (for instance), Messiaen’s, Alban Berg’s, and a host of others. He established perhaps the most important institute for electronic and computer music research in the world, single-handedly petitioning a thankfully enlightened French Government in the late 60s/early 70s.

He renovated the repertoire, established a benchmark in certain conducting techniques (perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but it enlivened the world of the symphony orchestra and shook up the BBCSO), released superlative recordings of some of the 20th century’s greatest music, was politically active in supporting young composers, new music more generally, educational standards and notions of musical citizenship, and worked outside the box with the likes of the genius Frank Zappa.


Throughout the autumn of 1835 Schumann found himself again much in the company of Clara Wieck. She was now sixteen, but the many experiences crowded into her life had ripened her personality beyond all relation to her years. Her début at the Gewandhaus on 9th November, with Mendelssohn on the rostrum, set the seal on all her earlier successes, and there was now no doubting that a great future lay before her as a pianist to whom the poetry of music mattered above all else. Ever since she was a child of nine Schumann had followed up her achievements with whole-hearted admiration; he had watched the gradual unfolding of her mind and of her heart, and now, in her eyes, he saw a look which told him the truth about their relationship. She loved him, he loved her, they had always loved each other, and he knew then in a flash of intuition that the paths of their lives would one day converge. No word was spoken, but the evening before Clara set out on a concert tour in November, Schumann came to say goodbye, and kissed her as she guided him, light in hand, down the stairs. They met next in December at Zwickau, where Clara was giving a concert, and they kissed again.

(Joan Chissell, The Master Musicians, Schumann)

It has often been charged that Robert Schumann’s orchestral works are little more than thinly-veiled transcriptions of musical thoughts that fall more naturally on the keyboard, and that he lacked the necessary skill to realize his purely orchestral ideas effectively.

I don’t think that Schumann’s orchestration is poor. It has not the instrumental relief, the colour, of Berlioz’s orchestra, but the reason is, in my opinion, in the difference between the ideas and feelings both expressed. Schumann is much more turned within himself, not very tempted by descriptions or great effects. His Symphony No. 2, my preferred, is a melancholic work that could not have the transparency of Mendelssohn or the colour of Berlioz.

The only problem with his symphonies is perhaps in the fact that the sonata form was not the ideal vehicle for Schumann’s personality. The development is sometimes reduced to systematic repetitions of the main ideas, with no real evolution. This seems more obvious to me in the Symphony No. 4 and the Cello Concerto. But in general we accept that because of the sublime beauty of those ideas.

And there is the overture Manfred, an extraordinary work, to me the best work that Schumann composed for orchestra, also conceived in a sonata form with three motifs, a real development and a very original (and disturbing) coda.

Some of the stuff Schumann did in the symphonies is fairly demanding and sometimes a little awkward to play, but his orchestration is excellent, a very unique sound world which a lot of people simply don’t get because it is rather different from what many other composers did. His symphonies can sound absolutely marvellous in the hands of interpreters who can realize that unique differentiated sound. He was basically decades ahead in some aspects of his orchestration. There are even elements in it that point forward to Debussy.

Listen to Barenboim for a very “romantic”, “full bodied” approach, Gardiner for a very lean, transparent and highly coloured sound; Sawallisch is excellent, too, he allows the sound to unfold and bloom. I also rather like Dohnányi’s Cleveland recordings. Other really great readings are Harnoncourt and Muti which get great musical results in their very different way. Muti is very compact and “classical” and achieves great transparency and finely tinted textures, while Harnoncourt’s readings are very extrovert, bouncy, very lyrical and expressive – probably the most “romantic” readings I have heard – but very “early romantic”, not “late romantic”.

Whatever some people may have to criticize about the orchestration – and some even tampered rather massively with it, like Mahler did – Schumann’s symphonies have been very popular for a long time.

Karol Szymanowski’s early orientalism made his name – but his return to the music of his native Poland was an equal epiphany for him, writes Jim Samson in the Guardian:

There is much of interest and beauty in the later music. But the composer himself seemed aware of how much had been lost. He once remarked, in an oblique reference to the First Violin Concerto, whose inspiration was the poem May Night by Tadeusz Mycin´ski: “Our national music is not the stiffened ghost of the polonaise or mazurka … It is rather the solitary, joyful, carefree song of the nightingale in a fragrant May night in Poland.”

(Read the full article)

Szymanowski more or less went through the typical three periods in his music. His earliest period was greatly influenced by Richard Strauss and Max Reger, and his middle period added the influences of Claude Debussy, and Oriental idioms. The third and final period of Polish nationalism and modernism produced perhaps his finest works: both of his violin concerti, his two string quartets, his ballet Harnasie and his marvellous Stabat Mater. My favourite is his Symphony No. 4 “Symphonie Concertante” for piano and orchestra, which really gets the pulse going. The finale seems to be a foot-stompin’ cross between a mazurka and a bacchanale. Definitely music to turn the amplifiers up to eleven.

In September 1934, Szymanowski bitterly complained in a letter to his friend, Polish pianist Jan Smeterlin: “Polish officialdom (the Government) repeatedly refuses to recognize me. They do so only when I am needed for propaganda purposes, as it is impossible even for them to deny that among creative artists (not virtuosi) I alone (and not solely amongst composers but in other fields as well) have already acquired some reputation abroad. This is another story, which I will tell you another time. The fact is that they care nothing for me here, and that I could die without anyone lifting a finger. My funeral will be another story. I am convinced it will be splendid. People here love the funeral processions of great men. I see no reason why I should be silent about the scandalous conditions to which I am subjected. You can tell the world about it. I have tried everything I can and there seems to be no response.”

Szymanowski was right. Arthur Rubinstein wrote in his autobiography My Many Years: “When he was no more, the authorities trumpeted pompously the loss of their great son. They prepared a Warsaw funeral with an unheard-of mass of publicity. A hundred thousand people were massed to watch the funeral. A special train transported his body, accompanied by ministers and the family, to Cracow for the grand burial at the church at Skalla, where only the greatest of the nation were allowed to lie. They put on the catafalque the insignia of the Grand Cross of the Polish Restituta, the nation’s highest honour. What a bitter irony! For years they had made my dear Karol suffer through their meanness and now they were willing to spend a fortune on this big show.”

Szymanowski Focus, curated by Piotr Anderszewski, is at the Wigmore Hall, London on 5 and 7 May.

Black Dogs Defined

This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved and hated, like another: my life was as the vapour and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.

(John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies)

Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

This is my letter to the world, that never wrote to me.

(Emily Dickinson, This is my letter to the world)

Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!

(Edna St. Vincent Millay, Second Fig)

R.A.D. Stainforth

I was born before The Beatles’ first LP and brought up in the reeking slums of Jericho. I am in love with a woman called Hazel and in love with her daughter, also called Hazel, both of whom I met at Alcoholics Anonymous.

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