Gerald Barry — Canada

There are only a handful of living composers whose new works I invariably feel I must hear. Off the top of my head this includes: Sofia Gubaidulina, Kalevi Aho, Arvo Part, James MacMillan — and the latest addition would be Gerald Barry.

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Gerald Barry

Gerald Barry’s music has the rather special quality of being challenging and mind-boggling while also being immediately accessible and, on the whole, rather merry. Even his most violent music makes me smile giddily.

Canada began its life unusually. Barry was in a Canadian airport, terribly stressed, and upon finally making it through security and to the bar, an idea came to him: a setting of Beethoven’s ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ in English, French and German, all with the original text or translation — except for one addition, the word ‘Canada’.

Canada is a short piece, hardly ten minutes long. It begins with an exclamation by tenor Allan Clayton, then frenzied orchestration, then sorts of musical exercises, until finally Clayton shushes the orchestra into silence.

Canada is ‘everyday and other’, Barry said in the interview broadcast in the interval. (It is worth listening to the entire interview, in which he demonstrates his remarkable ability to make the banal seem exciting.) Exemplifying this, one section sees Clayton singing musical exercises Barry wrote when he was nineteen. This is all set to one word (I’ll let you guess which one). The exercises keep repeating, and with each repeat sound sillier, to what sounded in the radio recording like much laughter from the Prommers. It is like when you keep saying certain words over and over again: the normal becomes unfamiliar and amusing. As I think I’ve said before, Barry’s music, like Beethoven’s, does a hell of a lot with very little. It’s economic, tightly-controlled, inspired music.

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Allan Clayton, tenor

The piece ends with a simple dialogue between Clayton and the orchestra. In it Clayton is Fidelio and the orchestra are the prisoners. Fidelio says ‘softly’ and the orchestra replies ‘Canada’, each time quieter than the last. Fidelio is teaching the orchestra how to be quiet and discreet.

At the end, the radio presenter told us that Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (the conductor, and one to watch out for) burst out laughing and embraced Barry.

You can listen to the concert on the Radio 3 site for the next 30 days.

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Why is Beethoven’s Ninth so popular?

I’m generally omnivorous in my music tastes. And I try to approach the great works especially with total humility and little suspicion. But there’s one notable exception: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Recently I attended a performance of the symphony, which was met with ferocious applause and a stomping, standing ovation. I must have been one of the few who did not stand — and the only one who did so out of stubbornness, not age or disability. I wonder why the Ninth gets such a raucous reception? At first, one suspects politics. The concert was a conspicuously European-themed Proms concert: first was James MacMillan’s European Requiem (though not the Brexit piece many doubtless thought), then the Ninth. Dozens of little EU flags were waved, and several supersized flags were draped over the railing by Prommers.

But politics, if it matters at all, is a peripheral reason for why the work is so adored. (Nor is its modern appropriation as a universalist secular hymn why I dislike it.) Not long ago the Ninth was performed on every penultimate night of the Proms. It’s an exceptionally popular work, particularly with a Proms audience. And the sheer volume of the choral finale filling the vast space of the Albert Hall is admittedly impressive.

However, as Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford writes, ‘the Ninth has attained the kind of ubiquity that threatens to gut any artwork’. Think Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Faure’s Pavane. And indeed it is the most popular part I dislike most: the interminable choral section blu-tacked onto the fourth movement. This pushes the symphony to way over an hour (was it the longest symphony to date?). Following what Wagner called a ‘horror fanfare’ and a bizarre recapitulation of the first three movements, the anticipated moment arrives. First the tune is played on the cellos and double basses, expanding out to the rest of the orchestra, then, after another ‘horror fanfare’, comes the elongated, almost Oratorio-length variation on the Ode to Joy theme.

Interestingly, this is what Verdi, a man who knew a thing or two about choral writing, had to say about the finale:

… Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, marvellous in the first three movements, [is] very badly set in the last. No one will ever approach the sublimity of the first movement, but it will be an easy task to write as badly for voices as in the last movement. And supported by the authority of Beethoven, they will all shout: “That’s the way to do it…”

Quite a number of contemporary critics disliked the symphony. Many blamed its failings on — yep, you guessed it — Beethoven’s deafness. They found it too harmonically extreme, not sufficiently ‘beautiful’, or simply too long and trying. These critics weren’t in the majority. But as musicologist Nicholas Cook points out, had the symphony been written by Berlioz it would likely have been roundly rejected ‘as eccentric, wilful, and probably incompetent too’. (Berlioz of course loved the symphony.)

My problem might be a prejudice against the grandiose. Seldom do musical forms become more humble with time; they often seem to metastasise. It then takes someone like Arvo Part to do the radical thing: go back to the beginning. When I hear the Ninth, I think to myself, Beethoven did the exiting, celebratory fourth movement much better in the Fifth Symphony and with far less.

Were I musically more competent, I’d be tempted to rewrite the fourth movement without the chorus. But even then, it wouldn’t come close to Beethoven’s true masterpiece: the Seventh Symphony. Riccardo Chailly conducting the Gewandhausorchester:

Politics at the Proms

Imagine that a conductor ends a concert with an ardently pro-British speech. Imagine that he speaks of the enduring constitution of this country, how it has provided such liberty and stability and such a rich common culture. He continues by telling the audience how we must educate people to better appreciate this. He remarks on the greatness of the nation-state and the long-established principle of national sovereignty. The audience is told that an impersonal international system that cannot animate the people of the nation will be ruinous. The conductor explains that it robs people of a sense of home and blurs the diversity that nation-states foster.

Of course such a speech would never happen. Instead, Daniel Barenboim made a speech at last night’s Proms concert against emerging ‘isolation tendencies’. He said that ‘if you look at the difficulties that the European continent is going through now, you can see that, why that it is, because of the lack of common education. Because in one country they do not know why they should belong to something that the other countries do.’ The audience laughed approvingly.

When someone says, in effect, educate people so that they agree with me, they are patronising their opponents and veering dangerously towards ideological certainty. You would think musicians would be humbler about doing this. After all, they have an awful track record. For the last century, and perhaps longer, they have been among the most vulnerable to utopias and idealism.

The Proms aspires to be a national festival, one that’s diverse, welcoming and open to all. It would do well, then, not to alienate the 52% of the electorate who voted leave, and those who don’t care much either way. The Proms will invariably be a hospitable place for those liberals and leftists — Barenboim’s speech was really more a sermon. Yet it’s plausible that most classical music listeners are Leavers. And Barenboim has the arrogance to accuse them of jeopardising European culture and to tell them that they are ill-educated.

Indeed, Baronboim makes the common mistake of equating the trend away from European political union with the disintegration of European culture. This is sheer short-sightedness. Just as a nation continues to exist through revolution, invasion, and so on, so will Europe survive, as it has for millennia. Moreover, there is a great cultural danger in pursuing European political union. It promotes homogeneity and discourages diversity and local autonomy. Some would say that this bland internationalism is an unfortunate feature of post-war musical culture.

People often say music and politics shouldn’t mix. I disagree, and think that they will inevitably mix. Beethoven and Napoleon, Verdi and Italian nationalism, Shostakovitch and the Soviet Union, Peter Maxwell Davies’ anti-Iraq War String Quartet, etc. But there is a substantial difference between political inspiration and political speeches. One is suitable for the concert hall, the other isn’t. A speech at a concert claims the music for one’s ideological side. It is surely wrong to be a ventriloquist for a dead composer, and arrogant to decide that music itself conforms to one’s own ideological beliefs (in Barenboim’s case, humanism and internationalism).

BBC Proms 2017

Good, the Beeb has finally admitted that populist TV-themed Proms are a total, utter, useless failure. There are still some themed proms, but they’re much less exasperating. I am not wild about the idea of a Scott Walker prom myself, but it is a fine enough tribute to an influential and daring pop artist whose ties to this country are indeed great. And I do tentatively believe that Scott Walker fans are the kind of people who might be brought into the classical music fold. Unlike, say, Doctor Who fans. Still, calling it the ‘Godlike Genius of Scott Walker’ is peak stupidity. He’s a novel cultural artefact. That’s it.

Back in the dark ages [my teenage years] I was a Scott Walker fan. What boy isn’t excited by the sounds of a pig’s corpse being punched, or songs about the execution of Mussolini and his mistress? Now, the music seems repetitive and goes on for too long, filled with a lot of quirkiness while foregoing musical substance, but it can sure be novel and interesting. Here’s the music video for his song ‘Epizootics’:

Overall, this is a conservative proms. Cutting away the excess, focusing on the tried and tested, a moderate sprinkling of new music, generally good but not bold. Some highlights to look forward to (not at all a comprehensive list):

  • Prom 14: Vaughan Williams 9 and Holst’s Planets. I don’t know VW’s ninth, but I’ll be excited to discover it, and the pairing with Holst’s awesome planets seems perfect.
  • Prom 16: Not a big Liszt fan, but with a premiere (Julian Anderson, whose music I’m not familiar with) and, more importantly, the chance to hear pianist Steven Osborne, this might turn out to be very good.
  • Prom 21: James MacMillan UK premier, and of his timely European Requiem. I somehow doubt, as it is James MacMillan, that it will be the remoaning lament one might suspect. Probably a heavily Catholic view of Europe, and I expect and hope it will be brilliant, judging by the small number of (enthusiastic) reviews that followed its premiere in Oregon last year.
  • Prom 28: Thomas Ades conducting his Polaris and then Rite of Spring. Will be thrilling.
  • Prom 39: Mark-Anthony Turnage premiere of his 50-minute Hibiki. Maybe this will be the piece that makes me go from liking Turnage’s music to loving it?
  • Prom 26: Ruttle conducing Schoenberg’s massive Gurrelieder. Bet this’ll sell fast.
  • Prom 50: premiere of Gerald Barry’s Canada. Goodness knows what it will be about. Plus a healthy dosage of Beethoven. (Though surprisingly not Barry’s own clever song Beethoven.)
  • Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad Kind. This is off-site. Shame it opens with the dullest composer alive, John Luther Adams, but it’s worth it to see a live performance is this (in)famous piece.

Really, I look forward to all the premieres, and I’m sure my hopes will lead to great disappointment as the unwelcome clanging and modernist scraping clogs up my ears. But I’m nothing if not a hopeful pessimist. Also some classic stuff like Beethoven 7 and Mahler 2 that I especially want to see live.

There are things, however, that I love but feel are wrong for the Proms, or more specifically the dread Albert Hall. Bach cantatas, say, are but a shy whisper in a venue as big and flawed as the Albert Hall. Song cycles carry badly too, the singer usually submerged by the acoustics.

I was going to end with Barry’s Beethoven to compensate for its absence, but alas it’s not on YouTube. So Ades’ climactic Polaris will more than do: