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Camille Saint-Saëns, someone said, was “The greatest composer who was not a genius.”

I’m not sure who said it, but I know that (from an early age) Saint-Saëns could do amazing things like play any of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas from memory. That became his party trick. He was a child prodigy, and the great white hope of French music. I am not a huge fan of Saint-Saëns, I saw his Organ Symphony as a teenager and thought it was awesome, but now I think it’s boring. Tastes change (this says more about me than the composer). I think he wrote some pretty enjoyable music (like the fine piano concertos), and even some light and witty (very French) stuff like Carnival of the Animals. Early on, he was associated with progressive tendencies and was a good friend of Liszt, but later he became very conservative, booing at the premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Edgard Varèse was a student of his, and they had a pretty uneasy relationship.

I’ve also heard that he simply walked out once he heard the opening bassoon line of Le Sacre du Printemps. Who knows what is apocryphal and what isn’t?

Its clear to me that genius is always applied to a particular creative quality (even a counterfeit one, such as the case of Andy Warhol, the charlatan who conned others into believing he was a genius) or personal force rather than a mere superior form of intellect, the latter being the contemporary definition.

Some people are polymaths, or Renaissance people, and do a number of things well. This does not make them geniuses. A genius in art: creates exceptionally beautiful and/or deeply meaningful works; and often changes the history of their art by the sheer power of their work and its making plain ideas which are floating unarticulated in the collective culture of the time. (Some other geniuses like Bach and Rembrandt bring up the rear, summing up the art of their time better than anyone else and may be completely out of fashion by their middle or old age.) Their ability to do arithmetic or trigonometry, negotiate a contract, fly a glider, make love, cook, garden, lead a political movement or whatever else, has nothing whatsoever to with their artistic genius. If a physicist were good at all the things I mentioned but only mildly important in his original work in the field of physics, would that rank him with Einstein as a genius in physics? Would all the other physicists and scientifically aware people who are looking or waiting for ways out of the conundrums that physics now finds itself in, care in the least about this guy’s ability to fly a glider or cook fucking pasta? If Beethoven could have done multiplication, would more orchestras play his symphonies than do now?

Leonardo da Vinci was a polymath, but is considered a genius not because he was a polymath but because he painted great paintings, on the level of genius, and changed art history. Without that quality he might be considered a very prescient inventor and a pioneering anatomist and geologist, but would probably not be considered a genius. The fact that he only completed less than a dozen or so paintings underlines the fact of his genius because it is unmistakable even from these few examples. It may also show that his polymathism – he could never keep his wandering mind on one thing for long, even a paid commission – actually possibly undermined his genius.

I am afraid that I struggle a bit with Milhaud. Most French music makes me feel slightly ill anyway.

It is not that I dislike his music. Far from it, I find most of it very pleasant, amiable, cheerful. Ultimately, however, I find myself unable to remember one piece from another.

He just seems to have written too much. I have, for example, all of the symphonies and all five of the piano concertos but there just seemed very little which was memorable about any of them. I did make the mistake of playing all of the piano concertos in sequence (which at least was not the mild torture of playing all of Malipiero’s piano concertos after each other).

He reminds me sometimes of Heitor Villa-Lobos. Composing obviously came fairly easily to him and compositions flowed from his pen but perhaps not always totally uncritically?

Maybe I am being unfair and maybe I should give the symphonies a second chance?

Nah, fuck it.

The Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, who led the opening concert at the Sydney Opera House and was the first non-Briton to lead the Last Night of the Proms, has died in London at the age of 84.

Charles Mackerras was born in the US and raised in Australia before coming to England to study music.

Though internationally acclaimed, he disdained stardom and missed out on the plum post at Covent Garden.

He had become maybe my favourite conductor over the last few years. What a great man – great conductor, great musicologist, great reader and lover of music, great arranger too (Pineapple Poll). This is really sad news. He was the one conductor among the current generation of 80-somethings I was hoping would live longest; sorry, Haitink, Harnoncourt, etc. Not least because he was due to perform Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Mozart’s 40th and Schubert’s 4th in London this year – concerts which, since I’m moving to London, I was expecting to be the best nights of my year.

I don’t think I ever heard a recording of his that was not good, whether it was 18th 19th or 20th Century – he seemed to bring a fresh and exciting and always musically rewarding interpretation to the works he conducted.

It is very sad news, but he had a long and full life and left behind a great recorded legacy; you can’t ask for much more than that.

I recall an excellent concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester nearly ten years ago, where Sir Charles conducted Mahler’s Sixth Symphony with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. This was issued on CD with the BBC Music Magazine about a year later and I recalled how special and heartfelt the performance was. It is this, which I am spinning now, preparing for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony from the BBC Proms tonight. Great memories, great performance, very sad loss.

R.I.P. Alan Charles MacLaurin Mackerras, conductor, born 17 November 1925; died 14 July 2010


The modest maestro

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.

This is very worrying. I still adore it with all my heart, respect, love, worship it; but I’ve noticed that I’m listening to it less and less. I haven’t bought a CD for months, and recently I haven’t really been listening to music at all; when I do it’s usually some pop song.

I want to recapture that old love. When I do summon up the energy to put on a Mahler symphony my soul burns bright, I just hardly ever do for some reason

I wonder if this affects us when we get to a certain age. There comes a time when we think we have heard everything, e.g. yet another new release of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1. How many more to come, we’ve heard it all before, then boredom sets in.

An old professor of mine was of the opinion that people listen to too much music. While I would never get rid of the recordings I have, I think there’s something to that. In particular, we don’t give the attention to music that it deserves.

The answer could be listening less. I try to set aside time when I can give music my full attention in a relaxed environment without distractions.

Turn the lights out.
Pour a glass of wine or good single malt.
Don’t spill the drink in the dark.

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.


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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