Charles Ives — Autumn

In his Memos, Charles Ives recounts instances where musician friends would criticise his more radical works. ‘I’d have periods of being good and nice … until I got so tired of it that I decided I’d either have to stop music or stop this.’ His sensitivity to criticism and almost neurotic self-doubt (contrary to the stubborn composer many portray him as) would temporarily push him towards becoming a more staid composer — or as he describes it, ‘being good and nice’. Years later, he entirely dismissed works written during these periods as ‘weak-minded’ and ‘retrogressive’, written in a ‘kind of slump’. He lists several such works; included in the list is Autumn. But reading Ives one soon realises that his unsettled character made him a poor judge of his own work (and indeed of others’). Regardless of what Ives said, Autumn is a sublime song.

It was most likely composed in 1907. Harmony Twitchell, later to become Harmony Ives, wrote a poem, ‘Autumn’, that she sent to Ives in October that year. Though they had known each other for years, their sensibilities meant that they had not yet expressed their love for each other until this point. When they finally did, what came was, to quote Ives biographer Jan Swafford, a ‘first flush of revealed love’ that would last for the rest of their lives.

Harmony was everything to Ives. His sensitivity, his bouts of creative uncertainty, his eventually crippling periods of ill-health — it is unlikely that he could have endured these without Harmony by his side. Mrs Ryder, a neighbour of the Ives’, recalled that

One time Mr. Ives called up here and this tiny little voice on the telephone wanted to know if Harmony was here. I said “no.” He said, “I’ve been to the dump and I’ve been up in the attic and I went down to the cellar and I can’t find her anywhere!” SO I said, ‘Well, perhaps she’s down at Mrs. Hill’s” And I went down to the Hill’s and she was just leaving. I said, ‘Your husband is looking for you and he’s very upset.’ Well, we went home and when she climbed out of the car, he put his arms around her and said, “Harmony, oh Harmony! I couldn’t find you!

The poem ‘Autumn’ is in free verse. In the letter which accompanied the poem, Harmony said that she ‘wrote these lines down just as they came’:

Earth rests! Her work is done,
her fields lie bare,
And ‘ere the night of winter comes
to hush her song and close her tired eyes,
She turns her face for the sun to smile upon
and radiantly, radiantly, thro’ Fall’s bright glow, he smiles,
and brings the Peace of God!

Swafford sees an analogy between ‘the face of the sun and the face of her lover, the earth and Harmony herself, redeemed from loneliness and labor and encroaching age.’ What’s more, the line ‘thro’ Fall’s bright glow’ likely references an Autumn walk the couple had taken a week earlier, and that was to become one of their most significant memories. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, who was one of Ives’ greatest and earliest supporters (and indeed the first to perform the song), lists Autumn as one of Harmony’s ‘courting songs’.

The song is in Db major, and though it modulates frequently, it never veers from tonality; by the final chord it has returned to Db major. The left-hand plays these earthy chords low down in the piano’s range. Usually they are inverted triads, giving the piece a drifting, romantic feel. The chords are syncopated except for one impressive moment — the apex of the piece. The song begins quietly, but from ‘She turns her face’ onwards the volume swells. The right-hand, until now playing a sort of counterpoint to the voice, starts following the left-hand. It builds to a single glorious moment — ‘he smiles’ — in which the highest note in the piece is sung (F) and a root position Db major chord is played on the beat. If we go by Swafford’s very probable interpretation, this is the moment when Harmony turns her face for Ives to smile upon, and radiantly he smiles back.

Like most of Ives’ works, Autumn wasn’t performed for decades — its premiere was in 1939. Since then, however, Ives’s songs have been performed and recorded a great many times. There are several excellent recordings of Autumn, but my favourite is undoubtedly by soprano Roberta Alexander and pianist Tan Crone:

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David Braid — Upon Silver Trees

David Braid is a British composer whose new album of ‘Songs, Solos and Duos’ comes out next week. I for one can’t wait. His music is unabashedly tonal. It has counterpoint, melodies, harmonic rhythm — everything that is wonderful about music yet has become all too rare. (ETA: Check out Morning, for example.) I have quoted this before, but his advice for young composers is too good not to repeat:

I would say to a young composer – be a rebel! Write something in D major, annoy your professor, but make it so damned interesting and beautiful that he/she has nothing to say; that is the real challenge for us now.

A month ago one of the songs from this album was released, Upon Silver Trees, and I am really quite taken with it. It is rare enough to find a classical song that is beautiful is the traditional sense of the word, let alone to find one as exquisite as this. I have actually found myself singing it in the shower — and there is no greater compliment than that! What makes this song particularly special is the inclusion of an archtop guitar (alongside piano and voice). The archtop guitar has a mellow sound; it’s tone is not altogether unlike the classical guitar. And as it’s amplified it can easily compete with a piano, even while playing softly. Here, the guitar floats alongside the piano, often doubling it, then in the instrumental pauses it flies away to perform one of Braid’s attractive melodies. I can’t think of anything that sounds quite like it. I must also praise Emily Gray who sings with a light touch, as it were, and with excellent enunciation.

Top 100 Music Education Blogs

I have just been made aware of the rather alarming fact that people are actually reading this blog. Though initially thinking it was spam, I have apparently made Feedspot’s Top 100 Music Education Blogs at the dizzying rank of 96th.

Actually, I’ve known about this for a couple of days. I meant to write this blog post yestersay but fell asleep, then again this morning, but ran out of time. So I’m writing now on the train to London for what, judging by the reviews, will be an excellent production of The Magic Flute. I apologise if it’s hastily written, though perhaps I shouldn’t; usually such pieces turn out to be my best. I recall a columnist at an American periodical who was somewhat incredulous at the fact that his most popular piece was one he jotted down in half an hour — on his phone — while at the airport.

Orwell said something like (and I paraphrase as my phone’s internet is intermittent): ‘All writers are lazy buggers, and why they do it is a total mystery. Writing is book is a horrible struggle and anyone who does it must be possessed.’ For those of us who are the lowliest of writers, even writing a blog post is a horrible struggle. One feels compelled to do it, almost inexplicably, as a duty to oneself. I should write, and therefore I do write. But I don’t really know why I feel I should.

What I do know is that I love music more than anything. Yet to me music is a great mystery. I often find it incomprehensible — enchanting but intimidating — and almost impossible to write about. But I try, often skirting round the music itself. I’ll talk about history, reception, biography, or at my very worst I start desperately throwing out adjectives like cargo on a sinking ship. Still, it’s worth persevering. There is no greater feeling than when I ‘get’ the music, that wonderful moment of clarity, as if I’m no longer looking through frosted glass. But these moments are so infrequent as to make one question whether they were mere illusions.

In fact, I have been tempted to give the blog a tagline, namely this quotation by Chesterton: ‘if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’

Simon Leys on Music

Simon Leys was a brilliant essayist, critic, sinologist, thinker. He was among the first Western intellectuals to attack the Mao cult so prevalent in Europe and among his peers. In fact, he was a perceptive critic of academia generally, dreaming of ‘an ideal university that would deliver no degrees, nor give access to any specific occupation, nor award any professional qualifications’, and dismayed by the blurring between liberal education and vocational training. ‘The university is now under increasing pressure to justify its existence in utilitarian and quantitative terms’, Leys warns us. In the 1960s he wrote ‘A Fable From Acadame’ that apparently made the rounds among academics. It is centred around an old scholar named Hutudan who teaches in the Department of Applied Pataphysics — ‘Pataphysics (as you surely know) is the science by which movements of the tails of cows are observed in the morning in order to forecast whether it will rain in the afternoon.’ Curious? You’ll have to get a copy of Leys’ attractive collection of essays, The Hall of Uselessness.

Like most interesting thinkers, Leys obviously cared about music. In one essay he writes about how Glenn Gould discovered that music could be ‘soundlessly transmitted itself from his fingers to his mind.’ Similarly, Monet’s water lily paintings were painted towards the end of his life when his vision was seriously impaired. Leys also references a Chinese artist, Huang Binhong, who went blind late in life. ‘… though he could not see the actual effect of his brushstrokes, he relied on the rhythmic sequence of the calligraphic brushwork, which he had mastered through the daily exercise of a lifetime.’ Leys ends with a marvellous story about the ‘silent’ zither:

Today, masters of the zither ( guqin ), in their daily practice, occasionally play the “silent zither”: they go soundlessly through the various moves of an entire piece, letting hands and fingers fly above the instrument without ever touching the strings.

In the early fifth century, one great eccentric, Tao Yuanming, who is also China’s most beloved poet, went one step further: he became famous for the stringless zither which he used to carry everywhere with him. When people asked what such an instrument could be good for, he replied: “I seek only the inspiration that lies within the zither. Why should I strain myself on its strings?”

In his ‘Detours’, a miscellany of brief items, Lays includes an enjoyable dig at Theodore Adorno titled ‘The Philosopher and the Poet’:

Sometimes it takes a poet to deflate effectively the windy pronouncements of a philosopher. To Theodor Adorno, who declared that, after Auschwitz, no art was possible, Joseph Brodsky replied: “Indeed, not only art, but breakfast as well.”

Lastly, a long quotation — but well worth the time:

Once—many years ago—a minuscule incident afforded me a deeply upsetting revelation. I was writing in a café; I had been sitting there for a couple of hours already, comfortably settled at a table with my books and papers. Like many lazy people, I enjoy a measure of hustle and bustle around me while I am supposed to work—it gives me an illusion of activity—and thus the surrounding din of conversations pop songs, stockmarket figures, muzak, horseracing reports, more pop songs, a lecture on foot-and-mouth disease in cows—whatever: this audio-pap kept dripping like lukewarm water from a leaky faucet and nobody was listening anyway.

Suddenly a miracle occurred. For a reason that will forever remain mysterious, this vulgar broadcasting routine gave way without transition (or, if there had been one, it escaped my attention) to the most sublime music: the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet began to flow and with serene authority filled the entire space of the café, turning it at once into an antechamber of Paradise. But the other patrons who had been chatting, drinking, playing cards or reading newspapers were not deaf after all: this magical irruption of a voice from heaven provoked a general start among them—all faces turned round, frowning with puzzled concern. Yet, in a matter of seconds, to the huge relief of all, one customer resolutely stood up, walked straight to the radio, turned the tuning knob and cut off this disquieting intermède , switched to another station and restored at once the more congenial noises, which everyone could again comfortably ignore.

At that moment the realisation hit me—and has never left me since: true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete—but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness. Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all these are fiercely active forces, that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule. In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity. If this is true in the realm of aesthetics, it is even more true in the world of ethics. More than artistic beauty, moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species. The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.

Hear, hear!

Robert Johnson — Pavan No. 3 in C Minor (Guitar Transcription)

A few weeks ago I rambled on about the guitar repertoire, suggesting that we focus more on the lute and guitar music from around 1500-1750 and away from the Spanish repertoire. I suggested, among others, more Kapsberger, Zamboni and Bacheler. Now I can add another name.

Robert Johnson (c. 1583-1633) — not to be confused with the African-American blues guitarist — was the last great English lutenist. As it happens, he was also the son of the first great lutenist, John Johnson. The two Johnsons essentially bookend at either side the short but fruitful Golden Age of English Lute Music. There are about twenty extant solo lute pieces by Robert Johnson. Most are almains, four are pavans, a few are galliards, and there is only one fantasie. I dare say if more survived he would be a more celebrated composer. 

His Pavan No. 3 isn’t playable on guitar from the original lute tablature, and I don’t believe it has been transcribed for guitar before — so I thought it would be good fun to try. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. (Next several sentences are purely technical, if you want to skip ahead to the video and score.) The pavan was written for 10 courses (paired strings), with the added bass notes extending the range by a fifth. Therefore I transposed the piece from C to D minor and tuned the guitar’s sixth string down to D. This way all the bass notes remain and the piece is transcribed almost note for note. (The only exception I recall is bar 29, where the inner voices of the first chord had to be removed.) Given the reduction from ten to six strings, there are a few big left-hand stretches — the biggest stretch is from the second to seventh fret (bar 12, beat 2) — but it isn’t a fast piece, and most players should have little trouble playing the piece once the fingering has been worked out. 

I like to think I am an able Sibelius user, though I will admit that formatting multiples voices on a single stave was a bit fiddly. If anyone thinks I’ve done something wrong, or scored it weirdly, please tell me and I’ll make any necessary corrections.

Here’s the PDF. Beneath the video are image files. The pavan begins at 2:40, before which is the The Prince’s Almain, also by Johnson.

Johnson Pavan 3-1

Johnson Pavan 3-2

The more I fall in love with music…

…the less I actually listen to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got nothing to do with fatigue. Yes, when I first discovered classical music I was as musically promiscuous as one can be, listening to every piece of classical music I could find. But now that I’ve settled down after a couple of years, I realise it’s better to know a few things intimately than many things superficially. In part I’m being picky to prevent fatigue.

Still, it’s not just that. I’m currently reading C.S. Lewis’s ‘Cosmic Trilogy’. In the first book, Out of a Silent Planet, an earnest, kindly chap named Ransom (supposedly based in part on Tolkien, who was a good friend of Lewis) ends up being kidnapped and taken to an alien planet. This planet is an unfallen world, an Eden where all rational creatures pursue what is good. The first such creature Ransom meets is a Hross named Hyoi. Ransom is perplexed that the Hrossa, unlike humans, do not have an insatiable desire for pleasure. Must one be content to only remember a pleasure? Ransom therefore asks. Hyoi replies:

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered … When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes in me all my days till then — that is the real meeting. The other is only the beginning of it.

Listening to music so often and in such a scattered way meant a bunch of false starts. I kept beginning a process that deserved to be finished. What use is listening to Vaughan William’s London Symphony, say, and immediately moving on? It’s only now that I can truly remember, in an intimate sense, a great many pieces. What that means is hard to describe, but it emerges in the silence after listening to the music, the way music goes from being an event to something more lasting and significant (though not permanent, at least not in a fixed sense).

So there’s a few things I don’t do anymore. One of them is not walking and listening to music on my headphones. Walking is excellent for mulling things over but pretty useless for listening to music. It makes music seem mundane. There’s already too much music around us, most of it obnoxious, and the music that is good — Vivaldi at tube stations — is intended to be obnoxious. It’s good to have a break from it. Then when one gets that quiet solitary moment, it will be all the more meaningful and engaging.

Thinking about it, I haven’t listened to any music today. What I have done is play it. That’s the one exception, actually. I don’t think it’s possible to play too often. You are forced to engage with the music. And amateur though I am, I don’t think even the best concert experience can transcend the joy you feel playing a piece you love, and that you’ve struggled with for days — perhaps even weeks or months. I come out of it feeling content, and that’s a rare thing indeed.

Anyway, enough of all that. The piece I was looking at today was the Passacaglia that ends Biber’s so-called ‘Mystery’ Sonatas, and which has been transcribed for lute and guitar a few times from the original solo violin score. Here’s Nigel North performing his transcription:

Purcell’s King Arthur at the Barbican

Brexity Brexity Brexity Brexit. This might as well have been the revised title of this opera. That, or A Brexit Fantasia with Purcellian Interruptions. Or more prosaically, King Arthur and the Knights of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee.

King Arthur is an English semi-opera — that is, a combination of theatre and opera where the protagonists are actors and do not sing. As a result, little of the music makes explicit reference to the Arthurian legend, enabling director Daisy Evans to discard the story and in its place create a ‘debate piece’, as she called it, on contemporary British politics.

Her reasoning is thus: King Arthur is a symbol of Britishness; the nationalist sentiments in the opera cannot be convincingly sung by a modern singer in light of modern developments; therefore we need a production that probes and questions. Evans does this through an incoherent miscellany of poetry spoken in between the songs and music (which needless to say she has radically reordered). From the programme:

This production isn’t about King Arthur the legend, it’s about the idea of King Arthur and the values that he embodies. The full title of the original piece is King Arthur or The British Worthy, and what we’re exploring here is whether that really is the model of British worthiness we still want to stand up for.

These kinds of questions are invariably posed by people who already have a very firm answer, but wish to be sly about it. They can always pull a face and feign innocence, saying ‘what, I was only asking a question?!’

The opera began with the singers, dressed causally, descending into the hall like a flock of latecomers. Each singer wore a plastic rectangle hanging from their neck, either in red or blue. A sign to the left of the stage read ‘Leave & Remain’ (later signs included ‘men and women’, and the inevitable ‘us and them’). Narrator Ray Fearon took centre stage and began reciting a poem from Ali Smith’s post-Brexit book Autumn:

All across the country, people felt unsafe.
All across the country, people were laughing their heads off.
All across the country, people felt legitimised.

And so on. This was set up as call and response. Fearon would shout ‘All across the country’ and the singers would shout back ‘people felt legitimised’. The scene ended with Fearon reciting The Bloody Sire by Robinson Jeffers while the singers filmed him with their smartphones.

Later ‘highlights’ included the singers ripping up newspapers — fake news! — and a group of drunken (loutish?) men rowdily singing ‘Old England, Old England, And heigh for the honour of old England.’ One suspects this was meant to ridicule, or at least portray suspiciously, working class patriotism.

Then there was a passage from Shakespeare’s Henry V and the triumphant song ‘Come if you dare’, neither of which one can object to in and of themselves, and the latter of which is one of my favourite songs to sing in the shower (‘Triumphant with spoils of our vanquished invaders!’) The interval came and I left. Fifty minutes of politicised and ‘modernised’ Purcell was already too much. So this is a sort of semi-review of a semi-opera, I guess.

The most annoying thing is that there was no reason for it to be so bad. Superb orchestra, superb cast, superb music, and superb story. But a spanner had to be thrown in the works because the director wanted the production to be relevant. Yet the Arthurian legend is one of the few remaining historic cultural bonds. Everyone knows about Excalibur or the Lady of the Lake. It’s not exactly an out-of-date of irrelevant story that needs to be overhauled in light of contemporary events. But obviously Ms Evans disagrees. She would rather substitute the rarity and wonder of an opera for the banality of politics.