7 Works of Classical Music from the 1920s

I’m sorting through my iTunes library, and naturally got the urge to make a list. I was struck by the number of 1920s classical music I had. Was there something about the interwar period that’s special — new social values? new media? post-1WW nationalism? Bolshevism? a nascent American universalism? Whatever it is, here are my favourites:

[A note on the youtube videos: most are not my preferred recordings at all, but are the best I could find.]

1. Szymanowski — Stabat Mater (1926)

My favourite Stabat Mater, a sublime blend of religious beauty and Polish folk, and it was powerful enough to make me rethink religion. Many are Szymanowski’s later works, of which this is one, are unacknowledged masterpieces.

2. Carl Ruggles — Angels (1921)

An example of dissonance being beautiful (or of beauty being dissonant). This might be the piece I want played at my funeral. Ruggles was a curmudgeonly New Englander who wrote even less than Ravel, and hung around with Lou Harrison, Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and the like — though he seemed to have alienated everyone but Ives, who he uniquely respected. He was undoubtedly a thorny character, but a masterly composer, one whose method of ‘dissonant counterpoint’ is much superior to the serial music that came after.

3. Ravel — Violin Sonata No. 2

This is probably the piece that is most obviously affected by its era, full of blues-inspired melodies and rhythms. The second movement — unambiguously titled ‘Blues’ —  is the most interesting in this regard, with its pulsating rhythm and mimicking of guitar slides and its playful melodies.

4. Bartok — String Quartet No. 4 (1928)

I never will entirely understand Bartok’s string quartets, except in knowing that they’re highly modal, inspired by Hungarian folk, and spectacularly exciting to listen to. This one I liked long before I had any great fondness for classical music. I discovered it during my King Crimson phase. The band’s guitarist, Robert Fripp, said Bartok’s string quartets were a major influence on the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic works, a set of four exhilarating and clever ‘prog rock’ pieces (I hate the term ‘prog rock’, a genre I usually loathe). I had to look up the string quartets, and found them thoroughly inaccessible but fascinating, listening over and over again until I in some way understood them. Your turn:

5. Ruth Crawford Seeger — Music for Small Orchestra (1926)

I’ve written about her here. Her innovative uses of dissonant counterpoint (alongside Ruggles) and serialism are unparalleled. In that sense, this may be one of her tamer works, but also one of her more accessible.

6. Ives — Psalm 90 (1923-24)

Psalm 90 was apparently one of the few pieces Ives was ever wholly satisfied with. It is a magnificent work, one that sounds powerfully cosmic, much like The Unanswered Question and his unfinished Universe Symphony. It is both tranquil and frightening, aggressive with every mention of ‘destruction’ and ‘anger’ but calmly beautiful towards its end. As with Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, it is hard not to be compelled towards belief.

7. Puccini — Turandot (1926)

Not quite up there with the rest, but my goodness is it some fun, lyrical stuff. I can’t help but love it.


Recipe: Escargot des Jardin

In the sitcom Frasier, it was put to Niles, brother of Frasier and fellow snob, that he’d eat a worm if it had a French name. Niles, I imagine, would rather like this dish: ‘escargot des jardin’ — or less pretentiously, garden snails.

The scrumptious garden snail

They’re a free delicacy known to so few. Coming straight out of your garden, they’re fresh and delicious, and no different to what you’d buy in the snootiest French restaurant.

I know what you’re thinking, aren’t they dangerous to eat? Well, they can be if you just boil them straight from the garden. Some preparation is needed first.

Find a container, such as a bucket or biscuit tin, and place a heavy and/or secure lid on top, punctured with several air holes. (I’ve read that someone else ingeniously used tights over a bucket to keep them in, if you want an alternative.) The point is that snails are remarkably strong creatures who can together easily topple a light or unsecured lid. They can lift nearly ten times their their body weight.

Once you’ve found something suitable, go round your garden and collect all the snails you can find. You’re best off hunting in the wee hours of the morning or late at night. Otherwise, wait for after a rainfall and the snails will diffidently emerge. Big ones are obviously the best, but small ones are equally as tasty. Remember, though, that different sizes will require different cooking times, so its best to keep them all rather similar.

I was surprised at how viciously they ate the carrot

You have to clean them out with a healthy diet. You can choose a variety of things: lettuce, cabbage, oregano etc. It is a good idea to feed them something colourful — literally. You can tell when they’re cleaned out by the colour of their poo. Carrot is good for this reason, though any green vegetable is equally good. (Just don’t mix green and orange, that’d make brown, a mistake I made.) Snails retain the flavour of what they eat, so it’s a good idea to think carefully about what you’re feeding the little buggers.

Cleaning will take four or five days. After that, starve them for a couple more days until they stop pooing (they poo copiously). Make sure you wash the snails and their container every so often, and especially at the end. Oh, and keep a damp layer of water in the container; they like that.

Now the snails are ready to be killed and cooked. Boil them for 5-10 minutes and drain. (They die instantly.) Then get one of those dinky forks, or a skewer or something similar, and pull out the snail meat from the shell. This should be easy. But if it isn’t happening, you can just break the shell.

The snails, yanked from their shells.

You can eat the whole snail, from the foot to the gut. Many recipes tell you to cut parts off but this is little more than baseless habit or personal taste. However, if anything does look off, feel free to cut it off. I keep all the meat, however, especially for the guts — the tastiest part.

Here’s where it gets interesting. You can do anything you want here: boil, fry, oven-cook, grill, so on. I boiled them first for half an hour to soften the texture and gently fried them with rosemary, chilli and garlic for a crispy, oily outer layer. Then served with some rice. Delicious. (You could also cook a large patch and freeze them.)

A sort of escargot risotto, quickly made. Excuse the poor presentation.

What a bargain? I didn’t even have to leave the house. And if we do indeed hit another recession in Britain, well at least you and I can now save on the food bills.

Desert Island Discs and Political Decline

Professed music taste is a pretty good rectal thermometer for judging politicians.* I’m sure everyone in Britain is still reeling, a decade later, from the moment when Gordon Brown claimed to be an Arctic Monkeys fan. He was subsequently unable to name any of their songs, and left us with only one coherent comment: ‘they are very loud’. Everyone called bullshit.

Thanks to the Desert Island Discs archive we have a long-running record of political figures from all sides acting similarly. Politicians tend to be the more intelligent, the more learned. Most of them have been educated in our country’s greatest universities. Yet increasingly they are lowering their standards — and we’re encouraging them.

david-cameronDavid Cameron, our Eton- and Oxford-education Prime Minister, claims to love the following: REM, The Killers, The Smiths, Radiohead, Benny Hill, Pink Floyd, and Bob Dylan (plus one lonely Mendelssohn track). ‘Dave’, as he insisted on being called, made his appearance on Desert Island Discs around the same time he went on The Johnathan Ross Show and was asked if he ever masturbated over Margaret Thatcher. It was a time at which, fresh from winning the Tory leadership, Dave was eagerly degrading himself with a kind of pandering populism. Composer Peter Maxwell Davies was enraged by his choices:

In any other European country, a politician who chose that sort of garbage would be laughed out of court. The anti-artistic stance of our leaders gets up my nose. Their main aim is to turn us all into unquestioning passive consumers who put money into the bosses’ pockets. That is now the purpose of education.

ed-miliband-sass-faceJeremy Corbyn has yet to make an appearance, but David Ed Miliband has. His choices are all popular music of one sort or another, with one ostensibly anti-apartheid-related track. We need not call forth suppressed memories about Ed’s various media embarrassments, but it’s safe to say that his music choices are nearly as cringe-worthy: Robbie Williams, A-ha –even Neil Diamond. The Edith Piaf and Paul Robeson are not awful choices, but nowhere in the list is there any indication of good taste and judgement.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The first two politicians to appear on Desert Island Discs were Labour’s Tom Driberg, an odd and once-popular leftie who was, incidentally, quite possibly a spy, and the Conservative Party’s Beverly Baxter, a man I know nothing about but from some cursory googling seemed to be quite all right. Both were interviewed during the war, in 1943, only a year after the programme’s creation.

Among Driberg’s choices were Palestrina, Mozart, and an unusual choice of James Joyce reading from his book Finnegan’s Wake, as well as a couple of popular songs. Baxter’s choices were indeed a touch more conservative — Wagner, Elgar, Strauss, etc. — but he also throws in a Louis Armstrong song. The choices seem believable for both politicians. They show good cultural taste while retaining a healthy attachment to some elements of popular culture. They are the kind of choices you would rightly expect well-educated politicians to make.

The cynic might say that they were simply adapting their choices to a different time, one that expected a certain gentility from its leaders. But so what? All this would mean is that the public expected its law-makers to be cultured and experienced. If only this were true today, then we wouldn’t have the likes of Donald Trump.

The modern politician defers to populist tastes. They are scared of any accusation of elitism. Conductor Antonio Pappano has said that politicians are even scared to show their faces at the opera. Instead, they withdraw what personalities they have, and unconvincingly opt for the most mass-market approved music their advisers can find.

It has created a curious situation where politicians attempts to seem normal have only resulted in greater hole-digging. They are scorned for being out of touch, but instead of trying to rectify this by mingling with the commoners, they engage in an embarrassing game of pretence, and everyone plays along.

Yet if anything the classes have only become more rigid. These well-educated politicians have climbed to the top rungs, only to kick down the ladder, all while pretending ever more so to be on the people’s side. But it’s not all their fault — we’re the ones who keep electing the buggers.

mayor_of_london_bo_1564736aWhich brings us onto Alexander ‘Boris’ de Pfeffel Johnson, a man with his finger irretrievably lodged in the wind. He tempered his choices in 2005 to cover all bases: a couple of poncy tracks, the Brahms and the Beethoven, to solidify his lovable toff image, but otherwise choosing mostly popular tracks, raging from his punkish side (The Clash) to his loose side (Booker T. and the MG’s). With his increasing television personality, most notably on Have I Got News For You, Boris had become adept even then at celebrity culture. I often wish their were a sign erected outside Westminster, similar to those in seaside towns warning of seagulls: Don’t Feed The Boris.

This is because we — and I use ‘we’ very loosely — encourage bad behaviour in politicians, with the perplexing mindset that they should be more like us. This denigration of elitism has created an obvious lowering of standards, as seen by the new predominance of unremarkable pop music over the artistic brilliance of Western civilisation. If we now think that, when stranded on a desert island, it is better to be stuck with a three-minute repetitive Smiths song than a Wagner opera, our culture has most certainly sunk. (And I say this even as a seasoned miserabilist rather partial to The Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.)

This surely proves my point: one of David Davis pick’s was Pink’s Get the Party Started. Really. I quite like David Davis, and I must say I was embarrassed for him when I read his choices. But worse was poor old Nick Clegg. No doubt still euphoric after the brief spurt of popularity he received in the 2010 election campaign (including, I’m so very ashamed to say, from me), he threw in Prince, Bowie and — listen to this — Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ theme for the world cup (video below). Clegg also chose Radiohead, always a top choice among educated people who want a ‘sophisticated’ brand of rock. His advisers seemed, however, to permit him a bit of Schubert and Chopin.

Look at Michael Foot’s choices — the far-left chap so well respected for his political fights for the working classes — and it’s all ‘elitist’ classical music. Margaret Thatcher’s choices showed similarly good taste. Even into the 1980s we could expect our politicians to maintain high cultural standards. If I had to put a date on when things changed, it would be in 1997, with the election of ‘Tony’ Blair — as much a pretence as ‘Dave’ or ‘Boris’.

But never fear, I have a solution of sorts: a permanent vacation to a remote desert island for all guilty offenders. Any Etonian minister who claims his favourite artist is Kenya West must go. Any hip young thing in parliament who claims to adore Meghan Trainer must go. A purge is needed. These politicians must face the consequences of their words. If they claim to love Eminem, we should do a Mussolini — that is, exile them on some unremarkable island, but with the ‘luxury’ of their apparent favourite Eminem track as company. Let them suffer.

*The phrase is adapted from one by the late Christopher Hitchens, suggesting that he should carry ‘some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart’

Discovering Ruth Crawford Seeger

Summer has come, and I’m cursed with illness and a temporary lack of wifi. But one distraction among many has been Ruth Crawford Seeger. I downloaded various recordings of her works a few days ago (thank you Apple Music), and have since become fascinated by her.

Her story is an especially curious one. Wife of musicologist Charles Seeger and step mother of folk legend Pete Seeger, she spent most of her years, as I understand it, compiling and arranging folk songs. But from roughly 1926-1932 (and with a brief spurt at the end of her life in the 1950s) she wrote several incredible works – almost out of nowhere – drawing on twelve-tone serialism and dissonant counterpoint, initially an academic invention of her husband, Charles, which proposed reversing all the harmonic rules of ‘traditional’ counterpoint. However, Seeger, alongside others, found profound uses for it.

In my view, and indeed in the view of many others, her works are among the best examples of atonal and highly-dissonant ultra-modern music. As Oliver Knussen, a great champion of her work, has pointed out, she seemed in this period to just go for it – and somehow got it right every time.

She even experimented with total serialism; that is, serialising not just pitches but all other musical elements too. Her String Quartet is an incredible example of this, and is unsurprisingly her best known work. By just listening to it, I can’t piece together its design, but I’m sure the third movement has serialised the dynamics, and with mesmerising results. I am not entirely on board with these kinds of strict pre-compositional methods, but Seeger manages to pull it off somehow.

This is somewhat of a generalisation, but music in late nineteenth century America aspired to be gentile and European. Dvorak’s trip at the end of the decade did not change the situation, or if it did so, its influence was very much belated. Indeed, the American musical scene was often thought of as feminine, being run and supported in large part by woman. The masculinity of many modern American composers can be seen as a reaction to this. But Seeger broke with the feminine stereotype, producing jagged, even rugged, works that were as dissonant as Carl Ruggles (who also used a form dissonant counterpoint) and influenced greatly the likes of Elliot Carter.

Three Chants is my current favourite of her works. It is a purely vocal work, sung it what must be a nonsense language (if not, I’ve probably committed some awful PC crime by offending an obscure ethnic group). I’ve no idea what harmonic system Seeger is using, but it’s definitely not twelve-tone serialism. The music, especially the second movement ‘To An Angel’, is ethereal despite its dissonance. This is less surprising if you believe, as Edmund Burke did, that the sublime is intrinsically connected to fear. Too often we are searching for music that is ‘beautiful’, as in ‘comfortable’ or ‘nice’. ‘Beauty’ is pleasant and well-formed, but often makes for rather unremarkable music, at least in my view. I seek to be intimidated and frightened and confused. The music should be so overwhelming that we never understand it in its totality. And Three Chants does exactly that, giving us an intimidating language – both linguistically and musically – that articulates some of the most sublime sounds I’ve ever heard. (Unfortunately, no youtube video exists of it.)

Outside this short six-year period, there are very few of her compositions that impress me in the same way. The arrangements of folk tunes are good, exciting fun, and a few of the slightly earlier works – for instance, the succinctly-titled Kaleidoscope Changes on an Original Theme Ending with a Fugue – are at the very least interesting. Of the 1926-1932 works, you could easily listen to all of the in one afternoon, and indeed I did, and recommend for everyone else to do the same. They were and are innovative, powerful, clever, odd and a remarkable surprise in the history of twentieth century music.

One last video, perhaps the most accessible of her ultra-modern works, by virtue of its use of repetition:

My Banjo and I

I bought a banjo. I’ve long been fascinated by the instrument. Partly as it’s always looked to me like a freakish object, most likely the cross-species lovechild of a guitar and a snare drum.

The banjo that I bought. Note it’s a bluegrass banjo, which means it has 5 strings and a resonator (as opposed to an open-back banjo, which doesn’t have the pictured circular rear).

Mine is a cheap 5 string Stagg bought on Amazon for a mere ninety quid. It isn’t anything spectacular, but once I’d changed the strings and tuned the ‘head’ (that’s the drum skin), it actually started to sound rather good.

The oddest thing about the banjo isn’t the drum skin — it’s the 5th string. (As a side note, careful when googling ‘banjo string’, especially if you’re male. Or else, like me, you’ll wince quite a bit.)

Anyway, the 5th string is the one with the tuning peg five frets up the neck, if you look at the photo. Perversely, it is the highest string on the banjo, and is used primarily as a drone. In many ways it gives the banjo its signature twangy high-register sound. But as a guitarist, I expect the 5th string to be lower in pitch than the 4th, naturally. And I still don’t see the entire logic of it — why not have a low pitch drone?

I’m getting over it. Worse, however, is how the banjo has forced me to the deal with so many things I don’t typically like: regular metres, rhythm and dance, and — eww — major tonality. It’s been quite an affront to my natural temperament to play music so cheery.

I recognise the banjo might not seem like my instrument of choice, if you’ve read any of my past blog posts and know of my love for classical music. But I enjoy the oddness of it, and it indulges my persistent fascination with America. It has become like a quirky, foreign friend to me, from whom I can learn about a simpler far-away land and its culture and sonorities.

And learning I indeed am. Most importantly, that there are two mainstream ways to play the banjo: Scruggs or clawhammer. Scruggs was named after iconic banjoist Earl Scruggs, and involves a fast three-finger picking style. This is currently my method of choice. Clawhammer is the older method, dating back to Civil War, whereby the player hits the strings percussively, like a hammer. You quite literally create a ‘claw’ shape with your hand and attack the string(s) downwards with your nails. The method is actually a lot more precise than you would expect, and a hell of a lot more difficult. It’s been a month now and I still can’t manage it. But my Scruggs style, at least, is coming along nicely.

Here’s Earl Scruggs himself, with friends (including Steve Martin), playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown: