Dashing to the Wiggy

At around 7:25 last night there was a strange young man using the streets of Marylebone as some sort of obstacle course. He started at Regent’s Park tube station, from which he walked purposefully down Marylebone Road. Once on Harley Street he began running in odd fits. As he approached Wigmore Hall he launched into a sprint, apologising to passers-by and dodging London taxis (who seemed to speed up as he approached). For you see, the exits out of Oxford Circus were closed, and he had a viol concert to attend. He made it with a barely a minute a spare.

This peculiar chap — who ran in such a floppy, gelatinous way, as if running were a concept that had just occurred to him for the first time — was, alas, me. All I can say is that I really wanted to be at that concert.

This was my first time seeing a viol consort (no puns, please!). The performers were Phantasm, who I knew for their recording of John Dowland’s Lachrimae or Seaven Teares for viols and lute. My interest in the lute, particularly English lute music, has naturally led to an interest in Elizabethan music more broadly. Last night’s concert consisted entirely of viol music by William Byrd, possibly better known for his sacred choral music.

Let me back up. A viol is an early string instrument, or rather a family of early string instruments, similar to violins, violas and cellos. Except viols are played upright rather than under the chin (viola de gamba, the instrument’s full name, means ‘viola for the leg’) and most have six strings (rather than four). Like lutes, they use gut tied round the neck as frets, adjustable for different intonations. I suspect most performers also use gut strings, as the members of Phantasm had to tune between every set of pieces.

Viol consorts generally consist of four to six viols, with varying combination of bass, tenor and treble. The instruments blend into one another, creating a more homogeneous sound than a string quartet. Viols have an austere timbre, somewhat lacking in warmth but quite direct. You won’t hear great changes in dynamics or expression; some listeners might at first find it too plain. But with time they will hopefully come to find the viol an especially intense instrument, as I do.

The music is highly polyphonic, and some of the Byrd viol music uses particularly dense polyphony (even his dances seem to). A lot of viol music was imitative of vocal music, as indeed most instrumental music was. Byrd would have written for viols in a similar manner as he wrote for voices. One can only appreciate this music by listening to its separate lines. I think it’s easy for people to mistake it for relaxing, pretty music because they are focused on the vertical aspect of the harmony, the alignment of notes, and not the horizontal movement — the remarkable interplay of the melodies.

But we are fast approaching where my very limited knowledge ends. If you are at all interested in reading more about the English viol consort, I thoroughly recommend this article by Brian Robins on his website Early Music World.

For now, here are Phantasm playing Byrd’s Fantasia No. 2:


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:

Looking back…

This year has resolved itself nicely. On a personal note, only a few months ago I would have assumed this year would end in discontent. The considerable improvement in my state of mind can be attributed to the beautiful things in my life — which, for the sake of this blog, means music. I hope I am not being too self-absorbed. I simply want to affirm what most people reading this already know: what a consolation music can be — how meaningful it is for many of us.

I’ve noticed some changes this year in the way I listen to music. I spend less time sitting at home listening to music and more time going to concerts, playing guitar and composing (however badly). When I first discovered classical music a couple of years ago I was in such an excited rush to hear new music that I approached many composers and their works superficially. Spending more time playing, reflecting, composing, attending performances etc. seems to me more meaningful and lasting than binge-listening online.

When I do listen to music, I close my eyes more often. This is much less trivial than it might sound. I am bombarded with visual stimuli throughout the day and this soon becomes habit-forming. My head in particular has the peculiar habit of jerking about trying to survey the room as if I were doing an impression of a pigeon. On top of that, I’m a terrible fidgeter, pen-chewer and joint-cracker. Closing one’s eyes concentrates the mind to the extent that, with a really good piece of music, I remain quite motionless and totally absorbed.

The highlight of the year has undoubtedly be the discovery of the lute repertoire. I’ve had the privilege of hearing three extraordinary lutenists perform this year (Thomas Dunford, Matthew Wadsworth and Paul O’Dette), then the joy of learning some of this music on guitar, and finally the thrill, just in the last two weeks, of getting my hands on a lute (which I’ll blog about soon).

My favourite concert this year was the early music group L’Arpeggiata performing relatively obscure works by Luigi Rossi (c. 1597-1653). Runners up include The Feinstein Ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (just two days ago), Die Zauberflöte at the Royal Opera House, Thomas Ades conducting the Beethoven symphonies, and Monteverdi’s Vespers (annoyingly I can’t recall the performers).

I am completely enamoured of this aria from Rossi’s opera Orfeo. L’Arpeggiata performing:


My Prejudice Against Mahler

I find myself consistently unable to like Mahler’s music. It’s not that I dislike it — I just feel ambivalent, and ever so slightly suspicious. I certainly want to like it, and I believe those who speak so highly of his music. I’m not yet ready to join the small but noisy Mahler backlash, those fed up with how frequently his symphonies are performed.

My feelings about Mahler are not particularly reasoned. It is a musical prejudice of sorts (and not my only one). Most listeners have such prejudices, and I’ve encountered many far more severe than my own. People who only really like Baroque music. People who listen to no music before Mozart (with the exception of Bach). People who have almost totally avoided 20th and 21st century music. People who much prefer symphonies. People who much prefer chamber music. People who can’t stand certain instruments.

One of my musical prejudices is for moderation and brevity. I prefer smaller and shorter music. Musical forms seem to metastasise: orchestras get bigger, symphonies get longer, scores become more prescriptive, techniques become more challenging, the music becomes more complex. It’s quite possible I’ve gained this prejudice as a guitarist. The instrument is a quiet one which, though quite capable of polyphony, is far more limited than the piano. We can pluck four notes simultaneously and strum six. The pianist can play ten simultaneously, and with greater range and far greater liberty. With the exception of the organ, I can think of no instrument more powerful than the piano. It provides the player with more possibilities than any other instrument. For many this is wondrous. For me it’s frightening. I see music as more the product of limitations than possibilities.

All that said, this prejudice does not stop me liking many things that are big and splendid. I adore the symphonies of Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Ives, Vaughan Williams, Pettersson, Tchaikovsky, Aho and many others (as well as the smaller Classical symphonies of course). I like Shostakovich’s symphonies, but tellingly I prefer his string quartets. Beethoven’s symphonies are perhaps bombastic but he achieves this great effect with the most meagre musical material — triads, the simplest of motifs. I also enjoy going to the opera. But operas are made up of a lot of short, often small things with some show-stoppers thrown in. The overture is a short symphony, the arias are seldom too long (do any exceed ten minutes?). I’m tempted to say that my favourite opera is Dido and Aeneas, intimate and a mere hour long, though it could easily be exchanged for, say, Don Giovanni or Madama Butterfly.

Confucius’s favourite follower, the one he thought the most virtuous, was the one who almost never spoke. Indeed I loathe ostentatiousness (though can be guilty of it myself) and the quality I most admire in others is humility and quiet. So it is with music too. Music that goes on and on, the type that seek to excavate every musical inch, bores me greatly. Mahler’s symphonies are that kind of music. Moreover, they are manipulative, pushing me explicitly in a particular emotional direction, teasing me, holding me in suspense for an inordinate amount of time, presenting like a peacock, boastful and grand. They can be annoyingly predictable — that inevitable, elongated swell leading to a loud drum hit and cymbal crash, rather like being hit over the head in slow motion. I prefer music that gets to the point rather than labouring unnecessarily and, perhaps, artificially.

I went to a Mahler concert this week, his Symphony No. 1 ‘Titan’. It ended splendidly, I’ll admit, and prompted rapturous applause within a semiquaver of the last note. Indeed I enjoyed the concert as I do any. The concert hall — even those as flawed as the Barican and Southbank Centre — is a magical place. Almost never has that spell been broken for me, so even when unsure of the music I am still transfixed by it. The Mahler also benefited from its pairing with Berntein’s Symphony No. 1. It was a theatrical symphony, brash, big, shimmering and forgettable. Bernstein was a remarkable educator and conductor but, it would seem, a negligible composer. The Mahler, coming in the second half, was a sort of relief, but far overstayed its welcome. I almost find the Mahler symphonies rude in a way.

I want to end this post with something quite different: a small and delightful rondeau by Machaut, ‘Ce qui soustient moy’. The musicologist and blogger Elizabeth Eva Leach has an excellent post analysing another Machaut rondeau, in which she begins by saying:

Most of the two-part Machaut pieces are rather neglected: you can’t make a dance out of them like you can with the monophonic virelais, and by the time you’ve assembled singers to perform Machaut, you might as well do the pieces closer to a modern four-part texture. As two-part songs are neglected by performers, they’re also neglected by musicologists, who tend to prefer the three- and four-part pieces as if these show evidence of greater artistry in some teleological narrative of contrapuntal progress. *sigh* Ok, off the early music soap box now and down to business!


VIDA Guitar Quartet at King’s Place

Why aren’t there more guitar quartets? The possibilities for new repertoire are exhilarating. How often do you get to hear the works of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams on guitar? The guitar can be such a quiet, lonely instrument, suitable for neither orchestras nor most ensembles. How wonderful it is to see four of these lonely creatures together, and creating such a big sound!

At least there are a few guitar quartets. And VIDA Guitar Quartet are clearly among the best. I caught them a couple of nights ago. It was a Bach-themed concert: after two contemporary pieces unrelated to Bach, they launched into a fantastic arrangement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, followed by Prelude and Fugue Nos. 2 & 4 by Mendelssohn, Bacanas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 by Villa-Lobos, and two Bach-inspired premieres by Laura Snowden and Howard Skempton. The third movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 is on YouTube:

Perhaps it’s my decrepit speaker, but this video, impressive though it is, doesn’t quite capture the extraordinary colour of the quartet. Each part was clearly separated. They could have sounded quite homogeneous; unlike a string quartet they all share the same range, except for one seven-string guitar, and are essentially all playing the same instrument (as opposed to violins, viola and cello). However, with the right musicians the sound world of the guitar is exceptionally varied — the string can be attacked in so many ways. One gets a better sense of this by watching the short promo for VIDA’s upcoming album (the music they are playing is from Light Perpetuum by Laura Snowden):

Following an incredible mishap — a tuner that fell inside the guitar — they ended with piece by British composer Howard Skempton. He titled it Bach variation for four guitars, but it was really an arrangement of a Bach fugue (I forget which one) — the twist being that it used only natural harmonics (except for the chap who lost his tuner; he played the bass line on a seven- string guitar). It was like listening to a music box but without any hint of the mechanical. The sound was warm and round, almost perfect.

As there isn’t a clip of Skempton’s Bach varation, here is VIDA playing Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite. Warlock was a very strange chap indeed: an Etonian, occultist (hence his surname), composer, writer, and somewhat important figure in the revival of early English music. His pieces were clearly influenced by Elizabethan music and have a certain charm.