21st Century Theorbo Music

Matthew Wadsworth is a pretty amazing guy. Although blind, he’s nevertheless become a first-class lutenist, and even studied under Nigel North. There’s clearly a stubbornly ambitious streak in him. In addition to his lute playing, he’s trying to break the record for blind motorcycle jumping. An excellent little documentary was made of the whole process.

I saw him perform a couple of weeks ago — lute, that is. He is without a doubt a fine player with a profound understanding of the music he plays. I will say that there were a few wrongs notes and instances of string buzzes — enough to make one slightly uncomfortable. I found myself comparing him to the lutenist Thomas Dunford, who I also saw recently. Dunford can whizz through the fastest passages in a fairly carefree way. Wadsworth doesn’t even try to play that fast; he’s a more contemplative player, whether by choice or not. This actually made him very convincing on something like Robert Johnson’s Pavan in C Minor, which is a less florid and more intense piece. I wish he would do a whole album of Johnson because that and the two Almaynes were just superb — dare I say, they were even better than the versions Nigel North has recorded.

But surely the most interesting thing he played was a newly-written piece for the theorbo. It’s based on The Miller’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and written for Wadsworth by Welsh guitarist and composer Stephen Goss. The piece is structured sort of like a Baroque suite, but with a prologue and epilogue. Each movement is supposed to represent a character from the tale. Here’s Wadsworth performing the estampie; the character represented is John:

Wadsworth has since released an albumLate Night Lute, so I’ve had the chance to listen to give The Miller’s Tale another few listens today, now the novelty’s worn off. I’ve never read Chaucer, and my attempt to do so today ended in impatience with the Middle English language, I have to admit. But the music nonetheless appeals to me. It makes great use of those signature bass strings of the theorbo, and also quite interesting use of harmonics. The theorbo is a weirdly tuned instrument, so you have an unusual palette to paint with, and paint Goss does. The arpeggiated harmonics in the toccata are a good example of this, creating a truly unique effect, especially with those powerful bass strings. It does sound kind of otherwordly. In fact, much of the piece does, like something old but alien. The estampie above is perhaps a bit different, being more of a lively, rhythmic movement. But the rest are quite meditative, very much playing to Wadsworth’s apparent strengths. I wish we had more composers writing for this rich instrument. As far as I know, the only other example is James MacMillan, whose Since it was the day of preparation… begins with a beautiful theorbo solo.

Anyway. Very much recommend checking out Wadsworth’s new release, available on Spotify, Amazon, and all that. To sign off, here’s Wadsworth performing Robert Johnson’s Care Charming Sleep. It’s a very nice performance, but I’m starting to suspect that he might actually be more comfortable on the theorbo.

Boosting Classical Music

We should have classical music that’s more like pop: compressed and bass heavy. Wait, hear me out! Here’s the oft-stated problem:

  • Classical music has an enormous dynamic range and lacks the punch of pop music.
  • This is a practical downside. Most of it can’t really be listened to in your car, or walking on the street, or many other spaces in our noise-polluted world.
  • Without that extra oomph, classical music just seems very unexciting; people want visceral music.

Now, I was building myself up for a rant on this, how the modern world is so bad and unfair and ugly and yada yada yada… But then I began asking myself, if people are accustomed to heavier music — music with a powerful bottom end — why shouldn’t there be more classical music written with this in mind? We’re not talking about digitally altering recordings or introducing amplification into the concert hall. This could be done by composers deciding to write music that is more bottom heavy, and/or orchestras restructuring themselves for this purpose.

Similarly, why not deliberately compress the music? Again, no technology is needed. We use a chasm-wide range of dynamics now, but centuries ago there was much less dynamic variation. When there was, it was used more for textural reasons than sheer volume change. There’s no reason why this stylistic trait can’t re-emerge. Composers could simply write music without having the liberty of specifying dynamics. That would go a long way.

All this could surely be a fruitful compromise with popular tastes. Good music is a product of borders, of deliberate limitations. So why not introduce a new style that takes as its borders these two traits of popular music, at the very least? And perhaps more controversially, why not use these traits as a way to reinterpret past works? Some compressed bottom-heavy classical music might just be what the 21st century needs.

It would only be appropriate to end this post with a pop song. I have come to reluctantly believe that there is but one great pop song — just one that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity, the gaudiness, the fun, the addictiveness, the danceability and the memorability of pop music. Yes, I’m awfully sorry to say, It’s Raining Men:

The Orpharion

I was listening to the lutenist Paul O’Dette play John Dowland’s Mrs Winter’s Jump and thought, Well chop off my legs and call me shorty, that sounds like a virginal! Listen for yourself:

Turns out it’s an orpharion. Typical of the Renaissance, the name ‘orpharion’ is derived from Orpheus and Arion. It was invented in England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, and became a fairly common alternative to the lute. It’s tuned the same way as a lute, and various contemporary books list it as an alternative to the lute, but there seems to have been very few books written specifically for the instrument.

While the lute was clearly the more esteemed instrument, the orpharion may well have been equally popular in the home: in 32 examples between 1565 and 1648 of household inventories which mention musical instruments of any kind, the bandora (its larger sibling) and orpharion occur as frequently as the lute.

An orpharion built by Francis Palmer in 1617 (see more photos here)

The orpharion differs with the lute quite significantly in terms of its shape, most notably the flat back. But the more important difference is its use of wire strings instead of gut. The subsequent brighter, metallic sound, and the more limited timbre and dynamic range it presents, are no doubt why I nearly mistook it for a virginal. Harpsichords, unlike the piano which uses hammer-action, are plucked instruments just like the lute and orpharion, so the method of attack is also similar.

Right-hand technique, however, differed between the orpharion and the lute because of the wire strings. William Barley published the first collection of music specifically for orpharion in 1596, and in it he wrote that

whereas the Lute is strong with gut stringes, the Orpharion is strong with wire stringes, by reason of which manner of stringing, the Orpharion doth necessarilie require a more gentle and drawing stroke than the Lute, I mean the fingers of the right hand must be easilie drawen over the stringes, and not suddenly griped, or sharpelie stroken as the Lute is: for if yee should doo so, then the wire stringer would clash or jarre together the one against the other

Here’s an orpharion being played. There seems to be very few videos on YouTube of the instrument — and half of them are by this guy:

Music Streaming and Classical Music

Classical music is really lagging behind when it comes to music streaming. Which is historically odd, considering that the length of classical music, for instance, was a crucial reason for the CD. Some readers might recall Norio Ohga, the president of Sony, who specified that the compact disc should be able to hold 75 minutes of music. Why this length? So he could listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without flipping the record over. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t a desire to hear Bruckner’s symphonies in their uninterrupted totality that launched the idea of music streaming.

Naxos Music Library (NML) was launched in 2003, a few years after Napster, but it hasn’t moved on much since. It’s the most extensive classical music streaming service, but at £261.60 annually, it’s no match for other streaming services, whose classical music selection is abundant enough to satisfy almost everyone. Spotify, in comparison, works out at £119.88 annually at the very most.

While mainstream streaming services demonstrate all the slick ease-of-use that has come to characterise this technology, the interface for NML can only boast Soviet-like clunkiness with a Windows 2000-era aesthetic. Even to just play an album you have to select the tracks, then open a pop-up player. Its only advantage is the inclusion of PDF booklets, which are themselves a less-than-perfect format for online use. A GIF of me browsing on the site:NML.gif

Plus, NML offers inferior audio quality in every way. Mainstream streaming services once preferenced pop, whose music is little harmed by compression and lower bitrates compared to classical music. But now Spotify etc. all stream in excellent quality for really low prices (NML does not). Spotify even has gapless tracks (NML does not), essential for a lot of classical music. In 2017, music streaming can be technologically indistinguishable to CDs.

Music streaming isn’t a complete blessing, I admit. Easy access to music recordings can inspire a kind of apathy. Why do I need to play musical instruments and think about music creation when my smartphone does it all for me? And it can inspire superficiality, such that no recording is listened to in any particular depth.

But there’s also a problem with recordings in general. I was very much intrigued by tenor Mark Padmore’s argument in a fairy recent Guardian article that recordings corrupt the way we listen to music:

… we are led to believe that because we know how a piece goes, we actually know the piece. I would argue that there is always more to learn, more to discover and because music unfolds over time we can only ever hold an impression of a piece in our mind. The second danger is that we start to hear live performance passively, as if it were an aide-memoire to the unfolding of the familiar. We probably notice if something goes wrong but otherwise we can essentially allow a performance to remind us of what we think we know already. We hear, but we don’t listen.

The third danger is that our reliance on recordings encourages a strange connoisseurship whereby they are judged against one another. There is a misguided search for the definitive performance – as if there could be one single ideal interpretation. People pull out obscure vintage recordings in the way that someone might show with a vintage wine. This is where the record collection resembles the stamp collection – music becomes a possession rather than a process. The point is, we are in danger of losing touch with the greatest strength of classical music – its liveness. The unrepeatable, unpredictable nature of great music performed in the moment for that moment only.

I certainly know I’ve been guilty of all three of those. I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I knew just a few dozen great pieces in exceptional detail than knowing, as I do, several hundred recordings, most of which in very little detail. It’s telling that the only times in which I have studied pieces in any great depth was when learning them on guitar. And when playing a piece, you quickly realise how many interpretations — all quite valid — that are available to you. You’re not trying to perfect your performance necessarily, but to understand what the score makes possible. It’s quite a depressing thought that any one of those possibilities could become permanent and unchanging.

How did I get through this post without mentioning the top-dog of streaming services, YouTube? And why not use it to play the recordings of Glenn Gould, who by the end of his career had retreated entirely into the recording studio:

What’s wrong with an older audience?

We’re all familiar by now with the problem of ageing audiences in classical music, and the endless calls to modernise and bring in the young, which generally means dismantling concert conventions. We must go to young people because they’ll never come to us, we’re told. And we’re to do this by indulging their attention deficit, their penchant for noise, their love for the casual and their suspicion of the formal and the reverent. Okay, but if you do that, this young person will never go to any of your concerts.

All that said, I can understand the alarmists’ concerns. Who doesn’t wince at statistics like this:


Longer term statistics are much, much worse. One report has the average age of French classical music audiences slipping from 36 to 61 over thirty years. In Australia, the largest proportion of classical music concert-goers are those aged 65-74. Greg Sandow lists studies showing a median age of 30 in 1937, then an average of 35 in 1955, moving on to 38 in the 1960s, at which point some alarms were already being sounded. Sandow has also collated longer term NEA data to show that, yes, this trend is obvious, historically unique, and shows no sign of stopping.

But why is this thought to be self-evidently bad? Today’s copy of The Times reports that violinist Nicola Benedetti ‘has expressed outrage at suggestions that organisers of symphony concerts should focus on attracting younger crowds, at the expense of older devotees.’ She suggested that older audiences are better at focusing and concentrating on the music, as well as noting that symphony performances are ‘suited to an atmosphere of formality and respectful attentiveness’.

It is somewhat outrageous that this even gets to be phrased in terms of a pernicious generation gap. The old are simply custodians of what they love, certainly not to the exclusion of the young. They really aren’t the problem — quite the contrary. Classical music has been made less welcome in modern society, whether by market forces or radical cultural change — or both. If we could simply improve, or in many cases (re)introduce, serious classical music education in state schools, and give classical music some much needed social capital, the sense of crisis would quickly fade.

There’s another, more sensitive topic. Younger generations are less white, and those of other ethnicities are even less likely to listen to classical music (with the obvious exception of East Asians, who make one less pessimistic about the future of classical music). Many people celebrate this. Desert Island Discs is, for those outside Britain, a radio programme where guests, from celebrities to politicians to academics, choose the pieces they would take with them to a desert island. When the programme begun in the early 1940s, 58% of the playlist was classical. Now it’s 21%. The Guardian had an article celebrating that the show now ‘features more diverse range of cultures and musical choices’. Of course, there are many of minority ethnicity who do choose classical music, but the historical constituency for classical music is in relative decline. And regardless of ethnicity, intelligent, fairly well-off people — those most likely to have an interest in classical music — are not exactly having the numbers of children they once would have. Which makes me think classical music is just a victim of general cultural decline.

I can think of few better musical accompaniments to this post than William Byrd’s Ye Sacred Music, written as an elegy for his friend and mentor, Thomas Tallis. ‘Tallis is dead, and Music dies.’

Boulez: Listening for the First Time

First impressions matter, and when I first heard the name Boulez, it was soon followed by L’enfant terrible. This was last year, at the time of his death, and in his obituaries I remember rolling my eyes at examples of his unnecessary iconoclasm. He was attacking those composers I was increasingly fond of: Dutilleux, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Mozart(!)… Then, when hearing clips of his music for the first time, I couldn’t find anything musical in them. The only time since that I’ve listened to Boulez at any length was on recordings for which he conducted. And in those two instances — Rite of Spring and Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 — I was struck only by their coldness.

So I thought I’d try again today, giving Boulez’s music my full attention for the first time. I decided upon his piece for piano (later expanded for orchestra), Notations. Written in 1955, Boulez was doubtless at his most formidable, a young man with a manifest destiny to push music beyond its established frontiers. The piece consists of twelve movements, each twelve bar longs, with a twelve note row connecting each movement. Is it not slightly odd that he still bothered with bar lines, especially given that each movement is so short? If you’ve already thrown the baby out, why not the bathwater? Anyway, here it is:

On first listen, it’s pretty exciting. Could I make out the tone row? Nope. What I do hear is the basic architecture of the music: changes in mood and dynamics, rhythmic motion, albeit very interrupted, as well as motifs and phrases.

I opened up the score and managed to find the tone row. The first eleven notes were obvious, and the twelfth could easily be found by process of elimination.

IMG_20170627_153954951 (1).jpg
The tone row for Notations

For the sake of this post, I’ll just look at the first three movements, each less than a minute long. The first movement:Notationspage1The tone row is established in the first three bars, then suddenly (literally, subito) the music hits you with some kind of chord. Perhaps the one thing I find most incomprehensible about this piece (and believe me, there’s stiff competition) is the chords. Mostly, I cannot discern how they relate to the tone row. Perhaps they don’t. The chords are noticeably held, left to shimmer as the right-hand decorates the air. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t see any way the chords relate to one another either, except as colourful evocations of something or other. From the third beat of bar ten until the end of the movement, the tone row is again stated, but from C♮ back round to A♮, and vertically as well as horizontally. However, while this is quite clear on the page, it’s useless trying to notice it when listening.

Movement two:

Notationspage2The second movement goes by in a flash. Two crash-wallops sandwich a strongly rhythmic section. The right-hand plays staccato minor second intervals, with the accents changing irregularly. It reminds me of the ‘Dance of the Young Girls’ from Rite of Spring, but significantly faster. The left hand starts out by playing the full tone row, then seems to play fragments from it, but without any logic obvious to me, followed by the tone row again, but in retrograde. The clusters at the end, as with the beginning, are made up of all twelve notes — Boulez’s ‘twelve’ theme strikes again.

And lastly, movement three:


The third movement is much more delicate, suggesting a more Romantic style. I mean, the expression is there, the structure is there, the deliberate organisation of notes is there. But still, it’s only dimly musical. To paraphrase a great entertainer, it sounds like all the right notes — but not necessarily in the right order.

Boulez later arranged and expanded Notations for orchestra. I can’t find a score for it, but already in the first movement it’s been significantly expanded, and is more interesting than the original piano version. The piano has a quite limited timbre, and Boulez seems to excel most with many different timbres under his command. Still, the music is about as comprehensible to the listener as bacteria is to the naked eye. There’s no getting round it: you have to crack open the score to genuinely get anything out of it. No, I’m still not convinced this is good music.

Mendelssohn: On the Wrong Side of History

In the history of the spirit all that is decisive is newness, originality; everything else is of subordinate importance … Those composers who unconditionally ally themselves with the old masters do not work for progress, for a further development of the art.

–Franz Brendel’s 1852 book Geschichte der Musik in Italien, Deutschland und Frankreich

Franz Brendel was a prominent German music critic and and an early proponent of what we now call musical historicism. He advocated for an idea of musical progress, that universal truths could be inferred from history and that these would determine the future of music. As a consequence, he had some quite mad ideas, such as insisting that music before the Palestrina was ‘prehistory’, for it didn’t express the ideas and feelings of individuals. Theories like this make it easy for ideologues to place people and ideas on the wrong the side of history, and among the many victims was Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn died at a rather bad time. 1847 was one year before revolution would sweep across Europe, and so Mendelssohn, who saw himself as an inheritor and custodian of the past, would have his posthumous legacy formed in a post-revolutionary context. Moreover, Mendelssohn was an ethnic jew. And with German nationalism on the rise, this made his legacy vulnerable, despite the fact Mendelssohn seemed to be something of a German nationalist himself. And despite the fact that his family had since abandoned religious judaism, and that he, the reviver of Bach’s Matthew Passion, was a devout Lutheran. (‘Every kind of music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God,’ he said.) Wagner singled him out in his infamous Das Judenthum in der Musik (‘Jewishness in Music’), which was in fact first published by Brendel in 1850, though with Wagner hiding behind a pseudonym. Wagner wrote that

[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents the most refined and varied culture, the loftiest, most tender sense of honor, without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music…

This critique of Mendelssohn as sentimental, unoriginal and superficial would live on, albeit without the rancid antisemitism. One such way was in the backlash against perceived Victorian values — shallowness, prudishness etc. — with which Mendelssohn, who had an exceptionally close relationship with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, could easily be associated.

So, how large an impact did antisemitism have on Mendelssohn’s legacy? Certainly the worse it ever got was under Nazi Germany, where they literally wrote him out of history and removed his statue from its honoured place outside St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (more famously, the church where Bach was director). Yet again, Mendelssohn didn’t fit the right narrative. But the regime apparently struggled to eliminate his music from public life completely, with his A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music still proving too popular to get rid of.

However, I think by far the more significant reason for Mendelssohn’s problems was that he didn’t fit the new obsession with originality. (This subject, I must admit, is also a small obsession of mine.) Berlioz, who was incredibly admiring, professionally and personally, of Mendelssohn — ‘enormously, extraordinary, superbly, prodigiously talented’  — nevertheless remarked disapprovingly that ‘he is still rather too keen on composers who are dead’. According to Berlioz, Mendelssohn even found Berlioz’s music incomprehensible. And while Mendelssohn did, in his work as conductor, help promote new music, in many people’s eyes he did not do enough. He was a much better promoter of the music of the past, and was instrumental in forming the canon.

His own music showed him to be a master of his craft, as did his much-praised piano skill and his pioneering conducting (conducting was a relatively new thing in the early nineteenth century). Indeed, he excelled at many other things too, from chess to gymnastics to theology to painting. And while he had his own personal troubles, he seemed generally less mopey than many, which may have been helped by the fact he and his family were pretty well off. He was exceedingly competent, therefore, but without any of the mythical traits of a genius composer. The musicologist Alfred Einstein complained about this exact point: ‘he had no inner forces to curb, for real conflict was lacking in his life as in his art’. Certainly, Mendelssohn didn’t feel compelled to be innovative and to seek musical conflict. Responding to a friend who was disheartened by that fact that he couldn’t compose anything original, Mendelssohn said

But your reason for not wanting to write any more, because you do not hope to break any new ground, is — if you will pardon me — not reasonable. What does this phrase mean, actually? To clear a path that no one has walked before you? But first this new path would have to lead to much more beautiful, more charming territory. For just clearing a new path can be done by anyone who knows how to wield and shovel and move his legs. In every nobler sense, however, I deny forthwith that there are new paths to be cleared, for there are no more new artistic territories. All of them have long since been discovered. New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.

Forgive the length, but I hope you agree it’s a marvellous little rant. And it highlights so clearly why Brendel et al. found the Mendelssohnian view of music anathema.

When Mendelssohn died in 1847, the English journal The Musical World described it as ‘the eclipse of music’. He was extraordinary well-received while alive, especially in England. Yet his death was really his own eclipse. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that his reputation began to climb back to where it was when he was alive.

Now, I don’t if he’s one of the Great Composers. I must confess, I’ve probably spent more time doing somewhat cursory research on him than actually listening to his music. So I defer judgement on whether he was great, or, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, whether he missed greatness ‘by a hair’. But of the three symphonies I’ve heard, I keep coming back to his Symphony No.4, the ‘Italian Symphony’. A perplexing thing about the Mendelssohn symphonies is that all but one of them are wrongly numbered. The 5th is actually the 2nd, the 2nd is actually the 4th, the 4th is actually the third, and the 3rd is actually the 5th. At least I think I got that right! Anyway, the Italian Symphony, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra themselves performing it: