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Arnold Schoenberg’s fascination with numerology, and the fact that he was a superstitious bastard, led to his morbid obsession with the number 13. Born in 1874 on 13 September, he believed that the number 13 would also play a part in his death. Because the numerals seven and six add up to 13, Schoenberg was convinced that his 76th year would mark the end of his life. Checking the calendar for 1951, he saw to his horror that 13 July fell on a Friday. When that day came, he kept to his bed in an effort to reduce the chance of an accident. Shortly before midnight, his wife entered the bedroom to say good night and to reassure him that his fears had been foolish, whereupon, Schoenberg gasped the word “harmony” and expired.

The time of his death was 23:47, 13 minutes before midnight, on Friday 13 July, in his 76th year.

Outside the music of the Second Viennese School, whose works are of course central, some other pieces are particularly special to me, though I don’t claim great things for all of them, necessarily. Here are just three of them.

Somewhere near the very top of the list come the three sets of Greek Lyrics by Dallapiccola, I think. Actually they are one of my favourite things in music full stop. Think of Webern’s concision and structural perfection and combine it with a delicate, refined Mediterranean lyricism (these are settings of ancient Greek poems). Few such exquisite pieces have come from any century and any style.

A surprise entry, really pretty obscure, is the Op. 15 Klavierstucke by Hanns Jelinek. I just love these works, though they aren’t at all barnstorming masterpieces. They were the first twelve-tone pieces I knew very well as a teenager, and are full of imagination, wit and fun. The work is divided into five books, each containing a number of pieces; Book I is four two-part inventions; Book II is five character pieces; Book III is three toccatas (including a Toccata Funebre for Berg, with some Wozzeck quotations); Book IV is three dance movements (including an utterly beautiful Sarabande, and a March clearly inspired by the Landsknecht number from Schoenberg’s male part songs) and Book V is a Suite in E major, including among other things a Bachian Prelude , a Siciliana which reminds me of Mozart a little, a jazzy Musette and an Epilogue which is an hommage to Debussy “d’un dodecaphoniste vienoise”. Each book uses the row in ever more advanced ways, until in Book V there is note repetition, free transposition and so on.

Forever linked to the Second Viennese composers in my mind will be Hugh Wood, who took a series of seminars on them when I was at Cambridge which I will never forget – truly moving occasions.

Hugh Wood is an archetypal northerner (he’s from Lancashire), bluff, down-to-earth, but he is at heart a late flourishing member of that set of post-Second Viennese composers that included Gerhard, Dallapiccola, Eisler and so on, and the eloquence and emotion with which he gave his last talk, on these three composers and their various fates, was particularly beautiful; and then he pulled out a bottle of champagne and we sat drinking, more or less, to these great musicians.

I love Wood’s three concerti, and particularly his Piano Concerto, which shows how much fun twelve-tone music can be, and is dedicated to gorgeous pouting Joanna MacGregor. It also has an admirably clear form. The first movement is springy, athletic and purely atonal. Its rhythmic vitality is infectious. The second movement, in complete contrast, is almost throughout vague, amorphous, delicate, utterly beautiful “late night” music. Gradually it takes shape, the contours and sonorities become clearer and the music is drawn ever-closer into the orbit of Sweet Lorraine, which is eventually quoted in sumptuous sound for just a few glorious seconds before a withdrawal is made. The movement is an attempt to bring together these two disparate worlds – it is for the most part a kind of twelve-tone rumba, almost, with the first movement’s vitality jazzed up a little. But there are tiny interludes, ever more magical ones, wonderfully orchestrated with soulful oboe or trumpet solos over pattering tom-toms, which although they only take up a few seconds in total, seem to contain the heart of this concerto.

The single most impressive musical development since World War II has been the astonishingly rapid and widespread dissemination of the practice of twelve-tone composition.

(George Perle, Serial Composition and Atonality)

It does really matter, when and where I am, when I compose. Some places are generally better to sit and compose than others. But one very powerful fact is that in the late evening or the early hours of the morning I’m much more productive than in the whole day. As soon as the dark comes and I’m getting tired, I can hear the music glowing in my head. Sometimes, when I pour a drink and start to compose, I have to refresh the music just for a moment, but in the late evening hours the music is always trying to refresh me. Wherever I go, I can hear the music all the time, and of course that’s only good for the productivity. But it’s just so irritating, that it starts when I’m too tired or drunk to write anything.

Sometimes I must hurry up from my warm bed to find paper and pen – I did that only two days ago.

Sometimes particular compositional problems will work themselves out in my dreams. And once, totally without any rhyme or reason, I dreamed about a chord … I saw it on the paper and it was luminous. As it glowed it sounded in my head as well. I woke up and wrote the chord down, which sounded almost as magical in real life as it did in the dream. I still use the chord frequently, particularly if I am referring to anything magical or otherworldly, though I also like it in abstract music.


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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