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boulez

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.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
(James Joyce, The Dead)

Can you understand people’s fascination with death? We all know that it’s going to happen, and don’t know what happens after it. Some cultures take it as a cue to mourn, or celebrate.

The requests people make when they’re dying, though, can be so silly. Bury me here, wearing this dress/suit, and put this in my coffin … spread some of my ashes overlooking my favourite view, and some on the street I grew up in, and the rest on the beach … blah blah blah … do this, do that. You’re dead. Who cares what happens here afterward. I’m not going on a road trip with an urn. If there is an afterlife with people looking down on the living or any of that stuff, the ones who burdened their families with these requests are probably thinking it was pretty stupid of them: it’s all material world stuff that you probably won’t care about anymore.

But you could look at it this way: those final requests involve the living in a structured process of mourning and closure, a process of materially showing final respect for the deceased’s wishes. It lets the living know that they’ve personally carried out a loved one’s last desires, even at some cost to themselves. True love is about self-sacrifice for another, not doing what is reasonable or comfortable for you.

And whilst the body will decay, and the soul might travel to some next life, in a practical emotional sense, something of the deceased is very much still here for those who interacted with and loved him or her. All those connections aren’t instantly sundered and erased as if the dead had never lived. To pretend that a person’s wishes matter in life but not in death is to deny that fact.

I won’t be leaving any chores for those left behind. However, I can see why these rituals exist and have for thousands of years. It is because humans require some sense of closure about everything, even those things that they aren’t there to experience personally. And those around them will do these things because they feel like when they are in that situation, they will want someone to do it for them. If it means a way to prove one last time that they are loved, or whatever personal philosophy that they hold to that is being fulfilled, then so be it. It isn’t anything to be hostile about. Death is the fulfilment of life. No more, no less.

Brown bread is brown bread.

The first thing of any substance I ever heard by Berio was his Concerto for 2 Pianos, on an RCA record that has never been released on CD. It remains a favourite, regardless. Sinfonia is very fine, likewise Coro. I haven’t heard enough of the Chemins or Sequenza series to make an overall call, but what I have heard was of high quality. A piece called Points on the Curve to Find, a sort of mini piano concerto, seems to bring a Reichian element into Berio’s style, and it works, too.

I’m not sure I’d call myself a fan. Some works I really love; others leave me cold. I’ve been listening to Berio for about 30 years. I don’t know which grabbed me first, the Folk Songs or the Sinfonia. I do know the LP pictured was one of my first Berio purchases, circa 1978. It’s a two LP box. I may not be a confirmed Berio fan but I’m definitely a confirmed Berberian fan. Being a Mahlerite my favourite Berio work is, of course, Sinfonia. I own Boulez and Chailly’s recordings.

A bit of Grateful Dead trivia. Phil Lesh, the Grateful Dead’s amazing bass player, was a student of Berio’s at Mills College in the mid-60s. Berio was so impressed with Lesh’s skill as a composer, he invited him to be his apprentice in Italy. Lesh met Jerry Garcia shortly thereafter and he chose a different musical course … to the profound gratitude of Grateful Dead fans all over the world.

We’ll never know what the classical world lost but perhaps we hear a taste of what might have been during the Lesh-inspired second set Space segments during those interminable Grateful Dead shows.

Berio


Berberian

You should try Boris Tishchenko. He was the closest and I think favourite pupil of Shostakovich, and published a book of correspondence with him. His works are long, ingeniously devised pieces for solo, chamber and orchestral forces. They often start out with a very simple theme, or perhaps more accurately a fragment of a theme, and build up to very powerful emotional climaxes before subsiding. Perhaps his best known work and my favourite by far is his Violin Concerto No. 2, once available on Olympia but long deleted. It is a 50-minute work which ranges from impish fun to harrowing outbursts (and if I am going to be honest, the second movement violin cadenza is rather tiresome) and overall it has a very strong impact. It has gained something of a cult following in the classical music world.

The Russian label Northern Flowers has released several recordings including a few symphonies and a ballet (I heard the ballet but it did not leave much of an impression at the time). There is also a disc of Rostropovich conducting his Cello Concerto No. 2 and this I found just plain shit; too repetitive (he often repeats figures to build them up, and it went way too far here) and not as intense as I would have expected.

Olympia also released his Symphony No. 5 conducted by Rozhdestvensky but I have yet to hear that. I have a couple of CDs of his piano sonatas too, one of them with bells, a huge 50-minute piece which I found more testing than The Anatomy of Melancholy. I listened to it twice, never again. Well, I did try.

If you like Shostakovich, you might like Tishchenko, as he shares a similar feel in terms of humour and intensity.

For me the entire piece pivots around Tatiana’s letter writing scene; if that is no good the whole show is off. Of course for Tchaikovsky this scene was the first building block of the opera, and it is somehow mind boggling to think that the composer took events from his own life and projected them brilliantly on Pushkin’s great novella.

(The woman he was briefly married to had written him unsolicited love letters, and it’s as if his empathic talent made him powerless to reject her advances: he identified with Tatiana, and married a woman he could not stand to hear talking.)

Perhaps it’s just me but I find it incredibly moving to see Tatiana sit down at her little writing desk and pour her soul onto the paper. An aria about writing a letter! And her first line “I am writing to you, what more need I say?” is even more moving.

She could have left it that and kept the letter, and everybody would have been happy ever after.

The beauty is there is a terrible irony in this scene. She is really writing to herself, saying “I am a woman of great passions”. In some ways Tatiana is not pouring her soul onto the paper. Everything she writes is a figment of her fantasy, if not an outright cliché. She wants to be in love, like the women she’s read about in her romantic novels. In that way Tatiana is Madame Bovary’s aunt.

There are people who think that Eugene Onegin is an opera about Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality. He seduces Olga only to prevent her marrying Lenski. Then he leaves her, because Lenski is his true love. Later, when he returns and declares again his love for Tatiana, she is already married and out of reach.

I don’t know if this interpretation is the most correct. But I always had the feeling that Onegin doesn’t really love Tatiana. She’s wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume, but that’s what she’s supposed to be.

Anyone who loves this opera really needs the Bolshoi/Boris Khaikin recording of 1955. This is a mono recording, though rather better than many of the Melodiya recordings of the day, but has, in the young Galina Vishnevskaya, the most believable Tatiana on record. Her letter scene, superbly backed by Khaikin’s conducting, catches to perfection the conflicting feelings of the young Tatiana. The great Sergei Lemeshev is by this time somewhat mature for Lenski, but nevertheless sings with consummate artistry, and Yevgeny Belov, though maybe not as imaginative as some, is a manly Onegin. Ivan Petrov, a little over indulgent in his aria, is a sympathetic Gremin. I’m not sure if it’s available any more.

It is my belief that as more and more people listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams, the more and more people will understand his genius. Never in my listening experience has there been a dull moment. RVW has contributed so much to music, and he is often overlooked. His love for music as music develops the beauty (he said that beauty can come from unbeautiful things) of the art of music.

His symphonies speak volumes to me, and his fantasias and choral works are mystifying and delightful. I will venture to say that there is not a piece that I do not like by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Compare the ethereal radiant G major opening chords of the Tallis Fantasia to the equally ethereal opening chords of Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler and Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. I had never noticed the resemblance until very recently.

The Tallis Fantasia in fact is a pivotal work in the development of English music. Whereas the English idiom is clearly evident in the music of Sir Edward Elgar, it is absolutely unmistakable in the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams. His Tallis Fantasia is among the most masterful examples of this. RVW seemed to collect almost every English folk tune and church hymn he could find. His use of their tonal and harmonic language helped establish the character of his music, as distinctly English as the music of other composers might be distinctly French or German or American.

One of the joys of fine music is that no matter how much we may know about it, there are still plenty of fresh discoveries to be made.

All nine symphonies by Ralph Vaughan Williams are superb, but I have a special place in my heart for his final three symphonies. These seem to be overshadowed by his named (the first three) and unnamed (the middle three) symphonies. All three late symphonies were works by a composer in his 80s, although of course the materials for Sinfonia Antartica (No. 7) date several years earlier from his score to the film Scott of the Antarctic. Nonetheless, in his old age RVW created music as masterful as ever.

Symphony No. 8 in D minor is great fun, and shows that a minor key need not be the least bit gloomy. RVW wrote: “The symphony is scored for what is known as a ‘Schubert’ orchestra: with the addition of a harp. Also there is a large supply of extra percussion, including all the ’phones and ’spiels known to the composer.” The extra percussion instruments feature prominently in the jubilant finale.

Symphony No. 9 in E minor may be my favourite, perhaps because it is the most visionary and problematic. Just before his death aged 86, RVW seemed to forge new paths which unfortunately he did not live to pursue. None of the four movements is in a traditional form, and the music develops freely, although not completely successfully. It is generally a sombre work, but very concentrated and expressive. Perhaps its great attraction to me is that of a flawed or rough masterpiece, and as such it seems to live and breathe every time I hear it.

It should be noted that RVW’s most personal addition to symphonic form – the Epilogue – appears in most of his earlier symphonies, and indeed it is the entire finale of Sinfonia Antartica. However, the Epilogue is completely absent from Nos. 8 and 9.

I first heard these works when I was 17 and immediately fell in love with them. Now, three decades later, my admiration is undimmed.

RVW composed some great concertos too. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra is terrific: a hair-raising Toccata, a gorgeous Romanza and a smashing Fuga Chromatica con Finale alla Tedesca which concludes with a radiant recollection of the Romanza. Makes me wish more composers had written two-piano concertos: they’re not rare but not exactly common either.

His Violin Concerto in D minor, “Concerto accademico”, is lovely, although it is eclipsed by his absolutely glowing The Lark Ascending for violin and orchestra. His Oboe Concerto in A minor is among the finest ever written for that instrument. And his Tuba Concerto in F minor of 1954 is spectacular. RVW clearly had great fun as a composer in his 80s, and this work taught me that the tuba could both sing and dazzle.



Arts

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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