Monday 27 January 2020

Reviews: Glass, Mahler and Donizetti

As a violinist I was irresistibly drawn to the first choice for this month's reviews - Philip Glass's Violin Concerto No. 2, 'American Four Seasons' (Piotr Plawner, Violin, Berner Kammerorchester, c. Philippe Bach, Naxos American Classics).

I'm sure that Glass is long past the label of minimalist, but he might forgive me if I use the term here, as the style of simple arpeggio figures and insistent repetition has much in common with the Baroque, where rhythm and pattern are significant features. Vivaldi's famous 'Seasons' piece is clearly visible in Glass's compositional mirror, as was his intention. The remaining significant similarity between the two works is the contrast between the expression of power and then lyricism which both concertos capture magnificently. The movements are not labelled with their appropriate season and although others will try to guess which movement is which, I was relieved to escape from that distraction. The concerto was premiered in Toronto in 2009.

My second choice is a familiar symphonic favourite, Mahler's No. 4 (Minnesota Orchestra, c. Osmo Vanska, soloist, soprano, Carolyn Sampson, BIS).

A heavenly delight! If you haven't indulged in this symphony before it is perhaps one of the most soothing, even healing, symphonic experiences that you are likely to encounter. There may well be bubbling musical tensions abounding throughout but don't expect anything but the occasional ff or explosive crescendo. Instead, bathe in an hour's worth of inventive orchestration as the musical narrative unfolds. Having experienced Mahler from the first violin desk, I can tell you how prescriptive the score is, how there is something new every few bars, seemlessly woven into a symphonic whole. When I first heard this symphony, it was somehow spoilt for me by the soprano entry in the final fourth movement, proclaiming a child's vision of heaven, but now the song is an additional high which sums up the whole work. The symphony was composed in 1901.

The third and final choice this month are three string quartets by Donizetti (Nos 4-6, Pleyel Quartet, Koln, CPO)

It was with a little trepidation that I listened to these quartets having been quite disappointed by other such chamber offerings from the Italian bel canto style opera composers of the early 19th century. These quartets were fortunately a delight! The style is, naturally, strictly classical as created by Haydn, the acknowledged master of the genre, so you will know what to expect if you are a fan. However, what I heard in addition was operatic atmosphere in this music, particularly in the slow movements. They evoke the stage - nothing visual, you understand, but a visceral theatrical feeling at the heart of the music.

Saturday 4 January 2020

Oil, Seagulls and Dead Fish

Here is the adventure surrounding the writing and performance of the concert overture called ‘The Hebrides’. The music was inspired by composer Felix Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland in 1829 culminating in a sea voyage from the Isle of Mull to Fingal’s Cave on the uninhabited, tiny, rocky, Hebridean Isle of Staffa.

The Scene

The year, 1829: Sir Robert Peel introduces the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 into Parliament to establish a unified police force for London; madman Jonathan Martin sets York Cathedral on fire, doing £60,000 of damage; Britain outlaws suttee in India (a widow burning herself to death on her husband's funeral pyre); William Austin Burt patents America's first typewriter; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's ‘Faust, Part 1’ premieres; The first Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race takes place; the Greek War of Independence ends after eight years and six months; the ‘William Tell’ opera, Gioachino Rossini's last and greatest, premieres in Paris; J.S. Bach's ‘St Matthew Passion’ is revived by Felix Mendelssohn, conducting in Berlin; later that year the composer visits England – and Scotland.

In 1822 Mendelssohn was thirteen. The Caledonian Canal, engineered by Thomas Telford, was opened, linking the east and west coasts of Scotland through the Great Glen from Clachnaharry on the Beauly Firth near east-coast Inverness to Corpach on Loch Linnhe near Fort William on the west.

The Journey

In 1829, Mendelssohn accepted an invitation to travel to England. The invite was from Sir George Smart, an English musician, and the Philharmonic Society based in London. Following a tour of England, Mendelssohn extended his travels to Scotland, where he began work on his Symphony No. 3, 'The Scottish'. His voyages through the rugged loch-strewn Highlands of western Scotland included traversing its waterways by means of the new-fangled steamboat.

The first commercially successful steamboat in Europe, Henry Bell's Comet of 1812, started a rapid expansion of steam services on the Firth of Clyde, and within four years a steamer service was in operation on the inland Loch Lomond, a forerunner of the lake steamers still gracing Swiss lakes. It is this type of vessel that would have taken Felix on the water stages of his journey through the Scottish Highlands. Remember that although these boats were then no longer dependent on wind and tide, their engines were not yet terribly efficient. You can imagine, like any steam engine powered by coal, a black, sooty, billowing chimney smoke, a substantial amount of engine noise and a trail of engine oil in its wake.

Now, a ‘skiff’ in contrast is a seaworthy rowing boat, sometimes rigged with sail and on 8th August, after the relative luxury of their steamboat trip, two friends were being rowed in such an ecologically friendly but relatively small, vunerable boat from the Isle of Mull to the uninhabited, rocky Isle of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides, far up the west coast of Scotland. One of the friends was being violently sick over the side of the boat but insisting as he held a kerchief to his mouth and gripped his somersaulting stomach that they carry on with their once-in-a-lifetime adventure to visit Fingal’s Cave. After all, despite the ocean’s swell, the weather was not too bad at all!

Felix Mendelssohn, composer, conductor, soloist, born 3rd February, 1809, Hamburg, died 4th November, 1847, Leipzig, was born into a prominent Jewish family and founded the Leipzig Conservatory, a bastion of anti-racial sentiment. He was a romantic but conservative composer whose works were meticulously created, usually undergoing radical revision before completion. A crowning achievement of his was to create a revival of interest in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, as suggested above.  He is also attributed with introducing the concert overture (as opposed to the operatic overture), most notably ‘The Hebrides’.

He, Chopin and Schumann are a trinity of early 19th C. romanticism representing a refined, less expansive style than the more extroverted Berlioz and Liszt, or the theatrical Wagner. His music is charming but never philosophically deep, enchantingly magical, with a genius for the scherzo. And, clearly, he had a yen for travel.

The day before, on the 7th August, the young Felix and friend, Karl Klingemann, journeyed by steamer from Fort William down Loch Linnhe to Oban and then to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Next day, they set out for the Inner Hebrides Isle of Staffa to visit Fingal’s Cave.

Felix’s companion, Klingemann, was a diplomat, born in Limmer an der Leine in 1798. He was secretary of the Hanoverian Legation, a diplomatic office in Berlin and, from 1828, was located in London. He was also a gifted poet and was Mendelssohn’s companion throughout his travels to Scotland.

The composer and his friend took the journey to Staffa to view the cave and eventually were able to sit in the rocking boat at the mouth of this awe-inspiring formation. His friend, Klingemann, wrote that Mendelssohn, terribly seasick during the trip, got “along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”

The cave, part of the Ulva estate of the Clan MacQuarrie from an early date until 1777, was brought to the attention of the English-speaking world by 18th-century naturalist Sir Joseph Banks in 1772.

It became known as Fingal's Cave after the eponymous hero of an epic poem by 18th-century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson. The relevant section formed part of his Ossian cycle of poems claimed to have been based on old Scottish Gaelic poems.

In Irish mythology, the hero Fingal is known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool and it is suggested that Macpherson rendered the name as Fingal (meaning ‘white stranger’) through a misapprehension of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn. The legend of the Giant's Causeway has Fionn or Finn building the causeway between Ireland, in County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland, and Staffa.

The roots of the construction between the Causeway in Antrim and Fingal’s Cave go back much further than the poem, however. Both visible geological wonders were created up to 60 million years ago by the same Paleocene lava flow and share the same unexpectedly symmetrical hexagonally-joined basalt pillars which countless tourists have since delighted in using as stepping stones. According to local experts, Staffa Tours, the columns of rock at both Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave were laid down at the same time.

Thousands of years ago, the cave was formed when underground pressures forced open a crack, which was further hewn by violent waves striking Staffa. The cave’s natural and spectacular acoustics amplify the sounds of the waves within its arched roof, earning the cave the Gaelic name ‘Uamh-Binn’, the cave of melody. The melody of the waves can be heard by visitors, including the astounded Felix and Karl, too, well before the visiting boat arrives. Teeming birdlife nests on Staffa from late April to August including puffins and the two friends had more than a chance of spotting seals, porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks and even, perhaps, whales on the trip to the island.

The Music

The Hebrides Overture began life with an opening theme that Felix jotted down in Tobermory and sent back home to his sister, Fanny. Although intending to represent his experiences travelling through the Hebrides in the manner of a tone poem, the overture has had several name changes, including the title ‘Fingal’s Cave’, which was added by the publisher Hartmann & Breitkopf to the version published in 1834. Today, in the UK, it is still known as ‘The Hebrides’.

The Hebrides is in sonata form, its first subject, suggesting the deep feelings of loneliness and solitude that Fingal’s cave evokes, announced right at the beginning in B minor; the second subject, depicting rolling waves, is in the relative (D) major, followed by a development section, recapitulation and coda. Moving from B minor to D major and then to F sharp minor in the opening six bars gives a wild, stark feeling to the music suggesting a primitive, bleak beauty.  Mendelssohn, the arch master of counterpoint, would normally have avoided this sequence, but here, blatantly, he was unfettered and released himself from convention.

The overture was, true to form, revised by the composer, particularly the middle section which Mendelssohn called “… stupid … (savouring) more of counterpoint than of oil and seagulls and dead fish …”. Without knowing about that intentional musical reference to oil, seagulls and fish, the listener can be forgiven for simply visualising an idylle, seeing with the inner eye the swell, storms and indeed calm of the ocean and the rocks and cave of the isle hewn by immeasurable inner volcanic forces but now fixed, a monument to their violent history. However, the steamships were filthy beasts and there was no environmental lobby to object to the slicks of oil that accompanied them through the Caledonian canal and beyond. The oil and steamboat propellers were fatal to wildlife including the fish and, inevitably, the birdlife, too. It was this that Felix was alluding to when revising the middle section of his overture.

The final version was ready for its first performance in London at the Philharmonic Society on 14th May, 1832, conducted by Thomas Attwood. The concert also featured Mendelssohn's ‘Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream’. The final revision was completed by 20 June, 1832, and premiered on 10 January, 1833, in Berlin under the composer's own baton.

Wednesday 1 January 2020

Jupiter and the Death of a Composer

The dire circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart’s final works were soon to be followed by the composer’s enigmatic death.

The Scene

The year, 1788, the place, a house in a suburb of Vienna, Herr Mozart’s new home. The events of that time: London’s Daily Universal Register becomes The Times; the First Fleet carrying 736 convicts from England to Australia arrives at Botany Bay to set up a penal colony; Lord Gordon is found guilty of libelling the Queen of France; the 1st US steamboat patent is issued by the state of Georgia to Briggs & Longstreet; Austria declares war on Russia.

Meanwhile, Mozart, at his desk, head in his hands, has reached rock bottom. His source of income has dried up, he has been forced to move out of the centre of Vienna, debtors are at his door and his mental state is one of vacillation between thoughts of suicide and manic bouts of creativity. From out of this fog of despair emerged the ‘Jupiter’ symphony, one of the greatest and most joyful orchestral works ever written.

The Music

Mozart’s 41st symphony in C Major, K551, is composed in four sublime movements:

         Allegro vivace, 4/4
Andante cantabile, 3/4 in F major
Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio, 3/4
Molto allegro, 2/2

The third of three symphonies written in quick succession, the Jupiter was written at the furthest edges of the possible for Mozart, and contains many different expressive and compositional contrasts moulded into a single symphony. Hence, the result is of unusually grand scale for a classical period symphony. It is characterised by joy, good humour and exuberant energy throughout. These qualities belie a great contrast with his crushing domestic situation - and his death just three years later in agonising circumstances of great mental and physical pain.

The nickname, ‘Jupiter’, was probably attached by German musician, impresario and long-time London resident Johann Peter Saloman and was perhaps first used in print in a London concert program in 1821. Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Zeus, chief of all the gods on Mount Olympus, was a massively exuberant immortal of prodigious sexual energy and unlimited power. Familiarity with the symphony brings no argument with its title.

The beautiful second movement contains one of the longest themes Mozart would ever write - eleven bars. Furthermore, it is unusual in that the strings play with mutes throughout, Mozart requesting the purest of restrained string sound possible. The expansive, stately minuet that follows could easily function as a posh dance in an imperial ballroom. But it is the final movement that stands out as one of the most stunning symphonic movements achieved by any composer.

It begins with a simple four-note theme that could have been taken from a church work. What follows is strict sonata form, but with so much use of fugal imitation that early 19th-century German musicians referred to the entire work as the ‘symphony with the fugal finale’. The final movement has also been described as Mozart’s most learned piece of music. The effect is, however, far from highbrow but a pure, unadulterated, joyful romp. If there might have been the 19th-century equivalent of a rock festival, it would have been played to an audience jumping in ecstasy, out of their heads, so to speak. In the final coda, all five, yes, five, major thematic elements are played simultaneously, yet the overall effect is not a lesson in counterpoint but an Olympian conclusion to a dramatic symphonic movement.

The Decline

Toward the end of the 1780s, Mozart’s fortunes worsened. He was performing less and his income shrank. Austria was at war and both the affluence of the nation and the ability of the aristocracy to support the arts had declined.

To give a flavour of the situation, one Habsburg possession that had escaped reforms during the reign of Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II was the Austrian Netherlands, which ruled itself under its own laws. In January and March 1787 Joseph simply swept away the constitution of the Austrian Netherlands and announced that from then on it would be ruled according to absolutist principles, just like the other provinces of the monarchy. Resistance simmered in the Austrian Netherlands until 1789, when it boiled over into open revolt, forcing the administration there to flee to safety in the duchy of Luxembourg. By that time there were rumours of rebellion in Hungary and in Galicia, and for a period it appeared as if revolution might erupt in many parts of the monarchy. Joseph therefore had his own problems and little time for the fripperies of court life and music. And then came war with Russia.

Living in this period of political turmoil, Mozart had been able rarely to compose on a whim. Generally, he wrote on commission or for his own concerts, or he created new pieces as gifts for friends. Such transactions were usually catalogued in the composer’s letters and writings, which have survived in large number. However, in the case of his last three symphonies dating from the summer of 1788, the historical record is silent. Music scholars have found no indication of a commission, so perhaps Mozart composed the works in hope of selling them or presenting them in a concert in Vienna.

By mid-1788, Mozart moved his family from central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund, as a way of reducing living costs. But in reality, his family expenses remained high and the new dwelling only provided more room. Mozart began to borrow money from friends, though he was almost always able to repay promptly when a commission or concert came his way.

During this miserable low period, he wrote those final three symphonies and the last of the three so-called Da Ponte operas (after librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte), Cosi Fan Tutte, which premiered in 1790. Mozart ventured long distances from Vienna to Leipzig, Berlin, and Frankfurt, and other German cities hoping to revive his once great success and the family’s financial situation but did neither. The two-year period of 1788-9 was unbearable for him, experiencing in his own words ‘black thoughts’ and deep depression. Listen to the Jupiter with this in mind.

In doing a little research into the nature of the Jupiter symphony, I became aware that this compositional event was not long followed by his death a mere three years later. In my mind, the first event became connected with the second, not, of course, in a causal way, but simply by association. The Jupiter is a crowning orchestral achievement; his death comes after a rapid decline in fortune, both financial and health-wise. It’s the extreme qualities of this juxtaposition that makes their association compelling.

… and Death

Mozart died on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35. The cause of death is uncertain, owing to the limits of post mortem diagnosis. Officially, the record lists the cause as severe miliary fever, referring to a symptomatic skin rash that looks like millet seeds. Since then, many hypotheses have circulated regarding Mozart's death. Some have attributed it to rheumatic fever, a disease he suffered from repeatedly throughout his life.

During the intervening centuries, numerous causes of his untimely demise have been offered, ranging from assassination by his rival, Italian composer Antonio Salieri, to kidney failure and rheumatic fever. In fact, about 150 different theories, both plausible and implausible, have circulated. None can ever be proven with certainty.

One of the more bizarre but distinctly plausible explanations that popped up in recent times was that Mozart had consumed an undercooked pork chop that ultimately killed him.

According to Jan Hirschmann, a physician at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle and an amateur medical sleuth, there is a compelling piece of evidence pointing to the pork chop as the culprit. While searching for clues, Dr Hirschmann came across a letter Mozart penned to his wife, Constanze, in which the composer reported that a servant was bringing him dinner. “And what do I smell?” he wrote. “Pork cutlets! Che gusto. I eat to your health.”

Mozart might have indeed eaten to Constanze’s health but, it would seem, to the detriment of his own. Hirschmann discovered that Mozart passed away a month and a half after the letter had been written. It typically takes that long for trichinosis, an intestinal parasite resulting from eating undercooked or tainted meat, to appear. The reported repulsive symptoms were similarly consistent with this diagnosis.

It was documented that his funeral drew few mourners and Mozart was buried in a common grave. Contrary to the popular notion of it being a travesty that the great man suffered a pauper’s burial, both funeral and burial were in accord with the Viennese custom of the time that only aristocrats and nobility enjoyed public mourning and were allowed to be buried in marked graves. Mozart’s subsequent memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were, however, gratifyingly well attended and his music, thereafter, like the Olympians, became immortal.