Samuel Barber — Symphony No. 1

What a blistering, glorious, compact symphony this is! I’ve been enamoured of it since hearing a performance at the Barbican a few days ago. This, and Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 10 a week before, has rekindled in me a love of big orchestral music.

Samuel Barber is one of the most successful American composers — but also one of the least American. Unlike composers such as Ives and Copland, who wrote works often infused with distinctively American music — patriotic and civil war songs, ragtime, nineteenth century hymns, jazz — Barber was unabashedly European. And not only European but decidedly conservative, his style rooted in the nineteenth century, and remained so until his death in 1981. He was therefore a popular composer but also a much criticised one.

Barber is still well known, though only for a single piece, Adagio for Strings. I have to admit the piece doesn’t do anything for me, probably because I’ve heard it so often. Quite honestly I suspected I might find Barber’s Symphony No. 1 insipid. It’s not — in fact it has an unrelenting, primal urgency that could almost rival the Rite of Spring.

The symphony is about twenty minutes long and condensed into a single movement. Still, it uses a fairly standard four-movement structure, except for the fact that the recapitulation for each theme is withheld until the end of the symphony. Most of the music is boisterous — bellowing horns, big crescendos, fast strings, stabbing chords, all that good stuff — but the third movement gives way to the kind of beautiful lyricism one might more readily associate with Barber.

Anyway, just listen:


Classical Music’s Diversity Problem

I sometimes wonder if, unbeknownst to me, other musical traditions have their own diversity wars. Do the Chinese lambaste their operatic tradition for not having enough white people? Do Indians feel shame at the lack of sub-Saharan Africans performing Indian classical music? Do Indonesians moan about the underrepresentation of Hispanics in gamelan music? No, I imagine not. How lucky they are.

The reason I bring this up is that I just read an article titled ‘Systemic Discrimination: the Burden of Sameness in American Orchestras’ on the music site I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The author, Douglas Shadle, argues that there is a ‘lack of diversity on concert programs [that] is built into the institutional structure of American classical music organizations, leading to systemic discrimination against women, people of color, and other historically underrepresented musicians.’ Orchestras therefore need to commit to having ‘inclusive’ programming, and audiences should hold them to account if they don’t.

There is a core disagreement between those like myself, who believe that music can be judged aesthetically, and those like Shadle who believe that the quality of a piece of music is inextricably linked to its reception and cultural milieu. He writes:

…the underlying premise here is the false belief that greatness is a quality inherent in a piece of music, rather than a culturally conditioned designation given by someone else.

Ask yourself: do you love Bach’s music because someone told you to like Bach, or do you love it because it is great music?

Shadle later continues the theme:

Drop the singular focus on phony subjective concepts like “great symphonic music” and “the highest level of artistic excellence,” since these in no way conflict with diversity.

This is the pernicious reality of egalitarianism. Merit is substituted for equality and diversity. Therefore, if I see that the first violin walks onto stage and he or she is black, or if I see an ethnic minority or a woman composer being championed, a voice in my head whispers ‘affirmative action’. And I feel horrible for it, as it brings into question the merit of someone who is most likely an extraordinary musician or composer. This is the dangerous egalitarian game we are playing. Surely it can only breed disillusionment and resentment?

I say it is a ‘dangerous game we are playing’ because, contrary to what Shadle suggests, these diversity policies are already in place. One orchestra he singles out for its systemic racism and sexism is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Well, like most orchestras the CSO has an explicit commitment to diversity. From their website: ‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is an Equal Opportunity employer which values and encourages a diverse workforce’. You will find the ‘Equal Opportunities’ stamp on most orchestras’ websites, and if you are applying for a job you may well be asked to fill out an ominously titled ‘Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form’ detailing your ethnicity, gender, and any disabilities you may have.

In a recent Telegraph interview, the great baritone Roderick Williams, who happens to be half Jamaican, made a brief but revealing comment about how his ethnicity has affected his career:

Has my colour stopped me being cast in certain roles? Well, that’s something I’ll never know, because I never hear what gets said on audition panels. But nowadays I imagine that our obsession with diversity means that, if anything, it works in my favour. Quite honestly, I would rather people judged me on the basis of my singing.

How wonderfully sensible. It’ll never catch on.

What is a lute?

When I say to someone that I’m learning to play the lute, I’m often met with a quizzical look. For many, the word ‘lute’ evokes images of ruffs and pointy shoes (neither of which, sadly, came with my lute). Few think of it as an instrument contemporary to composers as late as Bach and Vivaldi. Wandering minstrels more readily came to mind. And most people, naturally, aren’t even sure what a lute looks like exactly. Until recently I certainly wasn’t.

It’s a great shame the lute is not better known, for it was the most important instrument in Europe for at least a couple of centuries. Its portability and attractive sound made it a popular instrument, and its polyphonic capabilities meant it attracted the greatest composers and captivated its listeners.

Come the seventeenth century, however, it was gradually being replaced by keyboard instruments. By 1800 it had practically become extinct. In some countries the decline was faster than others. England’s last great lutenist, Robert Johnson, died in 1634. Thomas Mace later complained about the instrument’s fast decline in his 1676 book Musick’s Monument (though he still held out hope for its eventual revival). He blamed it on ‘false and ignorant out-cries against the lute’. These include ‘that it is the Hardest Instrument in the World’ and, amusingly, ‘that it makes Young People grow awry’. The reasons for the decline of the lute continue to be debated, but a major factor has to simply be that the intimacy of the lute was ill-suited to an era of bigger concert halls and expanding orchestras.

Fortunately, the lute was revived in the second half of the twentieth century. Luthiers re-learnt the lost craft of making lutes. (Indeed, ‘luthier’ originally meant lute-maker, derived from the French word for lute, ‘luth’.) Players rediscovered how to play the instrument, no easy task given that lute technique was a largely unwritten tradition. It wasn’t until the 1970s, for example, that lutenists stopped using guitar-like right-hand technique. Nowadays there are a great many lutenists, professional and amateur, and plenty of literature on the instrument.

Let’s take a tour of the lute. At the top you have the sharply-angled pegbox (nearly a right-angle). Unlike the modern guitar, the lute uses friction pegs: as one turns the peg to raise the pitch of the string, one pushes it in slightly so that the friction between the peg and peg hole stops it from slipping.


The lute I’m hiring (pictured below) has thirteen strings. There are six paired strings called ‘courses’, and a top single-string called the chanterelle (which very occasionally is paired).


This lute is a Renaissance lute, used around the second half of the sixteenth century. Renaissance lutes have anywhere from six to ten courses; Medieval lutes have four or five; and Baroque lutes have between eleven and fourteen (the latter generally being an ‘archlute’). A theorbo has up to nineteen strings (though fourteen is the norm) and is distinct from other lutes for two main reasons: it is often single strung, and uses a ‘re-entrant’ tuning whereby the top two strings are tuned an octave lower. Unlike other lutes, the theorbo was mainly, though by no means exclusively, used for continuo playing.

5-course Medieval lute (source)
13-course Baroque lute (source)

It is an old joke that lutenists spent as much time tuning their instrument as they did playing. It is sometimes claimed that this is why the lute died out. Lutes traditionally use gut strings, which are particularly vulnerable to temperature and humidity changes. However, each of my lute’s thirteen strings uses nylgut — that is, synthetic gut. They have survived both cosy central heating and cold winter days without any trouble. I seldom need to tune every string, and never more than small amounts. It can be fiddly, requiring slight hand motions and a good ear. Occasionally pegs stick or slip, but with practise this happens less frequently. As early instruments go you really can’t complain: a harpsichord needs to be tuned a few times a week and has way more strings than a lute.

Back to our tour of the instrument. If you look closely you’ll notice that the frets aren’t fixed:


In fact, they are gut string tied around the neck. One can adjust them for different intonations (the lute predates the tyranny of equal temperament). Viols and early guitars also use gut frets.

The decorated soundhole of a lute is called a ‘rose’:


The body is rounded, unlike the flat back of many string instruments, helping to give it its unique sound. It is made using ‘ribs’ of wood:


There are various cousins of the lute. Many of these are types of gitterns (essentially early guitars and mandolins). Particularly interesting are the orpharion and bandora. They were common, though perhaps less respectable, alternatives to the lute. What makes them distinctive are their flat backs, undulating sides and, most of all, their wire strings which give the instrument a rather attractive virginal-like quality. You will find very few orpharion videos on YouTube, and half of them are by this chap:

Perhaps the weirdest member of the lute family, if it can be called that, is the lute harpsichord. It’s a harpsichord strung with gut, giving it a much warmer sound. Some, like the one pictured below, even aspire to look like a lute, albeit a rather bulbous one. Apparently it was Bach’s preferred instrument. Here is Elizabeth Farr playing Bach’s lute suites on one:

Some point soon I intend to write about learning to play the lute. For now, here’s Bor Zuljan playing a ricercar by Italian lutenist Giacomo Gorzanis (c. 1520-1579):

The Fire of Life

Grandad was an inexhaustibly genial man who knew how to live well. There are those of us who live our lives anxiously, who have lost so many days fretting over tomorrow. We may even be grateful for what we have, but we certainly aren’t content. Grandad would let ‘the morrow take thought for the things of itself’. He filled his time with painting, music, poetry, nature, scribbling, conversation and, perhaps most of all, family.

Just before Christmas his health deteriorated rapidly and a week ago he passed away. Fortunately, he was able to die in his home (which is becoming something of a rarity). The final days were mercifully free of pain and contained many wonderful moments. His smile and gleaming eyes, his cheeky winks and comic frowns — essentially, his good nature — survived exhaustion and delusion.

He was born in Birmingham in 1923. His memories of this time reveal an almost foreign country. People went to see silent black-and-white films in cinemas staffed with commissionaires who wore peaked hats and resplendent brown and gold uniforms. At the end of the film, the audience would stand as ‘God Save the King’ played. Grandad cycled three miles to school every day; one could also traverse the city by tram. Children innocently played with knives. Parents might spank their children. Dads assembled home-made radio sets and would tune into the one station available, the BBC (though the static would have made much of it inaudible). People listened to fragile — though heavy — ’78s’ on crackling monophonic gramophones.

In 1933 Grandad’s family moved to London. For some reason he did not take to his new school. By his own admission he became a less than perfect student. In 1939 his form master signed him up for art college, telling him ‘you are not much use at anything else, Watson!’

The Second World War interrupted his studies. It broke out two days before his sixteenth birthday, and by 1941 he was old enough to serve. He signed up for the aircrew in the RAF but failed the rather strict examination (possibly because of his hearing). He was, however, retained by the RAF and eventually called up in 1942. For a while he was a ‘wireless operator’ in a training base, and later he was shipped off to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he served as photographer until the end of the war.

He never stopped painting and eventually got a job as a ‘technical illustrator’. Come the last several years of his life, poor eyesight and arthritis meant he found it very difficult to draw. But by then he had a vast body of work to look back upon, with most of the family owning a ‘D. T. Watson’ painting. Still, despite his old age he would sketch things from time to time — birds, plants, people. As Nan said to him (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), ‘Monet was blind and painted those beautiful flowers — so what’s your excuse?”

Grandad was equally enthusiastic about music. He could often be found listening to his favourite Sinatra tunes and singing along merrily. (Up until the last weeks he had a splendid voice, even in his 90s.) He had been musical from an early age. In grammar school he was second fiddle in the orchestra. And while at art college he was a drummer in a ‘semi-pro’ dance and jazz band (though not, he would readily admit, a good one).

Remarkably, he had kept the violin for all these decades, but it was damaged so badly in the war that it became unplayable. A couple of years ago we decided to get it restored. He got to play it for the first time in 80 years. With some success he set about learning Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ and the melody from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

In the last week of his life he asked me to play the violin to him. Despite a weak voice and questionable grip on reality, he gave a perceptive critique of my playing. After the first thing I played — a major scale, I think — he told me I could do better. And so I tried, but with a cheeky smile he said I was about the same as last time. Frankly he was being generous: I haven’t the foggiest idea how to play the violin. When I instead played it pizzicato — like a guitar, my native instrument — he told me off for cheating.

I was not there when he died, so I decided to go see the body. I had never seen a dead body before and was ill-prepared. He was lying on a bed dressed in a clean set of pyjamas. A thin white sheet came up to his chest. He did not look at rest — it was something more eery than that. His body was emaciated, so much so that there was something grotesquely biological about it. He used to sleep with his eyes half-open and his mouth gaping; it was unnerving to see both his eyes and mouth shut. But what really frightened me was that I was convinced he was breathing. It bordered on hallucination: I swear to you I could see his chest rise and fall at regular intervals. Nevertheless, there was no doubt in my mind that I was staring at a corpse. All his apparent breathing did was inspire fear, not false hope. I feared that something had taken possession of him. A lifeless body has a demonic look to it. I knew that someone had become something. And whatever that something is, it continues to haunt me. It was empty and soulless — I saw how evil is the absence of good. Myths of zombies and vampires suddenly made complete sense. I seriously entertained the possibility that the body might get up and strangle me. Nothing could possibly be that still. It must have been deception. I never looked away, not for a second.

I knew that his soul, his being, or whatever you wish to call it, was gone — either extinguished or elsewhere. I may have already known that intellectually, but it wasn’t until seeing the body that I knew it viscerally.

When we were searching through his files and wodges of paper, we came across copious notes, stories, lyrics, poems, drawing, cuttings and so on. One poem had written beside it, ‘to be read at my funeral’. The poem is the ‘Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher’ by Walter Savage Landor. It’s the perfect choice:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.

The Bachtrack 2017 Classical Music Statistics

Every year Bachtrack, which claims to be the most comprehensive database of classical concerts, releases a statistical summary of the year past. Interestingly, what they choose to focus on changes year to year. This time there are a couple of graphs on how often nations perform music by their own composers:

I found some of these statistics surprising. Is there really that much contemporary Spanish music?

I feel somewhat ashamed that we Britons perform so little of our ‘early’ music (though still a bit more than most). After all, we are the island of Tallis, Byrd, Dowland, Taverner, Morley, Johnson, Bacheler… I suspect, however, that Bachtrack’s database is lacking when it comes to more low-key concerts. A lute or keyboard recital, unless it’s in Wigmore Hall, is probably not going to be listed.

Each year Bachtrack list the most performed contemporary composers — and each year Arvo Part comes out on top. John Adams is now a close second, probably because it was his seventieth birthday this year (the ‘anniversary effect’ has similarly pushed Monteverdi and Bernstein up the ‘Top Composers’ list). The most performed composer of them all is Mozart, followed by Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. (Haydn and Schumann are just behind.)

Let’s end with some British early music. A setting of O Bone Jesu by Scottish composer Robert Carver: