I’ve decided to end this blog. To clarify: I’ll keep the blog online as some people might find some of the posts useful, even interesting. But I don’t expect to write any more posts.
As of this month (April 2018), the blog has lasted for exactly two years. I will remember it fondly as where I explored a newfound love of classical music. I must, for this reason, apologise to future readers for the inconsistency of the content. In terms of writing and musical understanding I was and probably still am a novice. I justify the project, as always, with the Chesterton line: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’
The posts that got the most views were invariably about political controversies in classical music, such as:
Music has often been, for me, a medicine for a sad mind. It has done more than anything else to give me happiness and clarity. I can with absolute certainty say it has changed my life. And indeed I love music as much, if not more, than ever. My decision to stop blogging about it has to do with other things.
Anyway, I thank everyone who has read this blog, particularly the handful of readers who, for some queer reason, came back. And I appreciate most of all those who have left comments — on the blog itself or on other platforms. When blogging there is nothing more gratifying than seeing that someone took the time to comment.
This blog should end where it began, with Charles Ives’ brief little song Slugging A Vampire:
Whatever happened to arias? That’s what I was thinking all the way through Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera Coraline. It was essentially a play with a soundtrack (and some warbling). Sure, the music is clever and at times delightful. Turnage gives it a quirky swing which makes one more forgiving of its relentless dissonance. But the music never goes much beyond recitative — and in a story brimming with opportunities for song. At times I sensed we might finally get an aria, a moment to let the heart soar, to make us despair, to chill us to the bone, but it never came. The music is agitated with flickers of promise, rather like a candle struggling to stay alight.
Coraline was originally a superb children’s story by Neil Gaiman. Coraline and her parents are moving into a new house, she finds a passageway to another reality where her ‘other mother’ lives, who seems affectionate at first, but her affection is revealed to be rather sinister. Oh, and in this other reality everyone has buttons as eyes.
Turnage has not compromised his music for the sake of children. A chap behind me went on boringly about how ‘sophisticated’ the music was for a children’s opera. Why do we conflate sophistication with weirdness? Is Berg more sophisticated than Mozart? What this chap meant was that, to enjoy this music, one needs to develop that refined middle class ability whereby, through an arcane process of intellectual alchemy, one transforms crap into gold.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. The music is not that bad. As a piece of theatre it works, and the many kids in the audience seemed to enjoy it. I doubt anyone remembers any of the music though, and I am certain that very few would have enjoyed a concert performance. But staged it was enjoyably spooky. Turnage is a good composer, and even though I’m not fond of his work there’s no doubting his talent. I just wish composers like him would relent on the jumbles of wrong notes, the faux-chord splodges and the unmelodic melodies. No one coming out of Coraline was thinking about the music. They were thinking about the production — in particular, the astonishing decapitated hand at the end — or the acting or the story. The music was incidental.
The one thing I loved about Coraline (and which almost redeemed it for me) was the fact that every word — nay, every syllable — was perfectly understandable. There were no surtitles, and we didn’t them. I am far too ignorant to even guess how Turnage did it, but he did, and any opera composers should surely study the score for this reason. Never did the orchestra overwhelm or obscure the words. It was a model of clarity.
Here’s a tricky question: how many Greek composers can you name? I managed just one name — Iannis Xenakis. But even then, Xenakis was born in Romania and spent much of his life in France. And he was a mediocrity, a prolific composer of modernist dreck. It seems a great shame that he is the most well-known composer from Greece — a nation that laid the foundations for Western music. They gave us the word ‘harmony’, the modes, the lyre. Pythagoras discovered the ratios of intervals (the story goes that he overheard a blacksmith striking an anvil, and noticed that the size of the hammer affected the pitch of the sound). Opera was created through attempts to recreate Ancient Greek theatre.
So what went wrong?
It’s not that there aren’t Greek composers. There are certainly fewer than most European countries, but since the nineneeth century (according to Wikipedia) there’s been more than a handful. The interesting thing is that the early-mid nineneeth century composers came from the Ionian islands, which was for centuries under Venetian rule — then Napoleon conquered Venice, then the British defeated Napoleon and established a protectorate, and finally, decades later, the islands were handed back to Greece.
The rest of Greece (up until 1830) was part of the Ottoman Empire. Being under Ottoman rule mean that the Greeks were severed from their own musical tradition at a time when many other European nations were seeking to revive it. Ottoman music was comparatively simplistic, and I presume (though it is a prejudice) that the Muslim character of the Ottoman empire hindered cultural development.
Yet even after the Greeks reclaimed their sovereignty, they never developed a substantial classical music tradition. The Spaniards managed it despite their troubles with the Ottomans. And the Russians developed a music tradition in the nineteenth century that seems as if it came almost out of nowhere.
But I don’t know the history well and would gladly be corrected on any of this. I am trying to figure out an answer to a question that few people, so far as I can tell, seemed to have asked in the first place.
Let’s end with Symphony No. 1 ‘Levendia’ by Manolis Kalomiris (1883-1962). Somehow, though I’m not sure exactly how, this sounds ‘Greek’. It’s the use of modality and the perfect fifths on the horns, I think. (I also hear hints of what sounds like a lyre.) And there’s something very curious about the rhythms. It all sounds quite heroic, and ‘heroic’ is a word I associate with Greece much more than, say, my tribe, England. Apparently Kalomiris is thought of as ‘the father of the Greek national school of composition’. I definitely want to explore some more of his music.
I’m doing a bit of reading on George Bernard Shaw while waiting for his three volumes of music criticism to arrive. From what I gather, Shaw’s writing should be, if nothing else, stonkingly good fun. I finally settled on buying the books when I read about the pseudonym he wrote under, Corni di Bassetto. It’s a ‘wretched instrument’, we are told — ‘the devil himself could not make a basset horn sparkle’.
The first book on Shaw I bought was a worn but attractive first edition of Chesterton’s very unbiographical biography (for pennies might I add; Chesterton first editions aren’t hard to come by). As I turned to page 22, a curious photograph fell out:
I love it. I imagine they are father and daughter playing some silly game. Looking at his uniform, it must be around the time of, or before, the First World War. And searching online, I am told that his cuff insignia is that of a lieutenant. There are no notes either on the photo or in the book to indicate date, name or place.
I quite often find odd stuff falling out of old books. Shopping lists, newspaper cuttings (often reviews of the book), torn fragments of notes, envelopes with old stamps reminding us of that wonderful pre-decimal currency we did away with. People must have picked up any old rubbish to use as a bookmark — yet I, decades later, find such rubbish terribly fascinating.
But I doubt the above photo was used as a bookmark. I wonder how it ended up in the book — did the daughter grow up and keep the book and photo as memories of her father? did she die, her books donated to a shop, and that’s how I found it?
Who knows. But getting back to Mr Bassetto, here’s a quotation from Chesterton’s book on Shaw (p. 37):
He is a daring pilgrim who has set out from the grave to find the cradle. He started from points of view which no one else was clever enough to discover, and he is at last discovering points of view which no one else was ever stupid enough to ignore.
It’s strange how ordinary learning an instrument becomes. When you first get your hands on a new instrument you are completely enamoured of it, almost to the point of disbelief. I’ve been fortunate enough for this to happen a few times in my life, but none compares to the lute. One can quite reasonably imagine oneself playing, say, a cello. I was certainly mesmerised by the guitar when I started, but I’d seen and heard plenty of guitars before. So while it was indeed mesmerising, it was, at the same time, rather usual. But I struggled to imagine myself ever playing the lute. It is anything but usual. When playing the Renaissance lute there is a four-hundred year gap between you and the repertoire. How can that fail to astonish? Here I sit in my jeans, a laptop in front of me, playing a lute. There are few things more delightful than anachronisms. I remember being elated for an entire afternoon because I’d seen a man casually cycling by on a penny farthing in an otherwise drab modern street. But the lute is not a mere novelty. I was drawn to it because of the enormity of its history. It was the most important instrument in Europe. Among the greatest musicians played and composed for it.
That these musicians and their music are so distant from us can, however, present additional challenges for the beginner. Guitar pedagogy is well established, aided by the fact that the modern classical guitar belongs to a continuous tradition dating back to around the late 18th century. But roughly the same time as the six-string classical guitar was gaining prominence, the lute died out. Modern lutenists therefore have a severed connection to their instrument’s tradition. This means one approaches the lute historically: rediscovering how lutenists played centuries ago and playing it in a very similar way, on very similar instruments. Learning the guitar is not so historical. The modern guitarist plays a somewhat different instrument to his forebears (bigger, higher tension, different timbre, nylon strings), with a different technique (straight right-hand wrist, use of nails) and with evolving repertoire. The lute had a similar, if not greater, evolution up until the mid-eighteenth century. Strings kept getting added, technique changed, repertoire changed.
But unlike the guitarist — most of us play 21st century classical guitars in a 21st century way, building on centuries of tradition — the lutenist learns to play his instrument in a variety of unfamiliar historical ways, rather than simply the modern way. He will play Francesco da Milano on a six-course Renaissance lute, John Dowland on a six- to ten-course Renaissance lute, Silvius Leopold Weiss on an eleven- or thirteen-course Baroque lute (and with a different right-hand technique). A classical guitarist isn’t going to play Fernando Sor on a Lacote guitar. Moreover, the lutenist has to learn essentially dead systems of tablature. These systems are not that difficult (well, except for German tablature), but they can seem cryptic at first. It’s easier, at least for me, to learn a modern instrument simply because it is modern (i.e. familiar).
But don’t let any of this put you off learning a lute, if you are so inclined. There are now several tutor books available (I’m using Diana Poulton’s for the Renaissance lute). And as I began by saying, what initially seems unfamiliar and even daunting about learning an instrument, especially the lute, soon becomes ordinary. Before you know it, you’ll have the lute strapped round you while sight-reading sixteenth-century manuscripts — and you’ll think nothing of it!
That makes it sound like I’m already proficient at playing. I’m not. I have become comfortable with the technique, which is quite unlike the guitar. On a Renaissance lute you play with your thumb inside your hand, like this:
When you have spend some time learning to play with the thumb on the outside on the guitar, it is hard to discipline yourself to then do the opposite. The other problem is that the lute is a much lower tension instrument. If I pluck as hard on the lute as I do on guitar the strings will smack against the frets — a horrible brittle sound. Having to pluck paired-strings as opposed to single strings (and without them hitting one another) adds to the difficulty. And that there’s usually at least one extra course (paired string) to contend with.
Learning fundamentals is never much fun, especially when you’ve been through (or are going through) the same process on another instrument. Rather, the temptation is to play that piece you’re within an inch of managing. It’s always much easier to attempt something ambitious than to perfect something basic. But, alas, one has to do the latter: practise the simplest things, and practise them very slowly. The revealing thing about practising slowly is that I often makes exactly the same mistakes as I do playing fast.
So you begin to pay very close attention to your playing. You try different angles of attack, work on economising movement, controlling which joints do and don’t move, adjusting the angle of your hand/wrist. Hand tension is often a problem when starting out — the little finger should not be pressing hard against the soundboard, the right-hand thumb should not be pushing the neck. The end goal is consistency. Not sameness, but rather where your sound is consistent with your intentions. You want to be able to control your tone, and to play the same thing multiple times with equal accuracy. Needless to say, I am far from either of these.
I have nevertheless learnt a few pieces. The very simplest stuff — MrDowland’s Midnight, for example. I attempted to record myself but this was a torturous exercise. It is hard enough, starting out on a new instrument, to make it through a piece. It is impossible to do it with the burden of knowing that any mistakes you make will be made permanent. What’s worse, recordings of you playing never sounds like you playing. It’s the same disconcerting sensation as when you hear you own voice. And it’s made even worse by the fact that recordings — usually on a budget device and in an acoustically dry room — will be anything but flattering for you and your instrument. I have wondered whether it’s helpful to have a bit of an ego when first learning an instrument, to be slightly ignorant of just how bad one sounds. In which case, don’t record yourself for at least the first several months.
I’ll write another post in a few days. For now, here’s an intabulation of Josquin’s Adieu mes amour by Italian Renaissance lutenist Francesco Spinacino’s, andperformed by Ophira Zakai: