An eternal golden braid

These are the people I will invite to the first annual party to celebrate the availability of cost-effective time travel:

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464)
Matteo Ricci SJ (1552-1610)
Thomas Harriott (1560-1621)
Robert Southwell SJ (c.1561-1595)
Kit Marlowe (1564-1593)
Henry Wriothesley (1573-1624)
Charles Diodati (c.1608-1638)
Shi Tao (1641-1720)
Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (1664-1753)
Johann Baptist Vanhal (1739-1813)
Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848)
Alexander d’Arblay (1794-1837)
Eduard Rietz (1802-1832)
Louise Farrenc (1804-1875)
Juan Crisóstomo Jacobo Antonio de Arriaga y Balzola (1806-1826)
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
Arthur Hallam (1811-1833)
Matthew Piers Watt Boulton (1820-1894)
Henry Horton McBurney (1843-1875)
Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams (1843-1885)
Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904)
Wolcott Balestier (1861-1891)
Warwick Potter (1870-1893)
Joseph Trumbull Stickney (1874-1904)
Jan Letzel (1880-1925)
David Kammerer (1911-1944)
John Medill McCormick (1916-1938)
Lucien Carr (1925-2005)
Christophe Bertrand (1981-2010)

Musical Genealogies

Thinking recently about tradition, I compiled genealogies for the lessons I have had in musical composition and in learning to play various instruments.

In composition, I once had lessons on serialist composition with James (“Gentleman Jim”) Penberthy, who in turn had had lessons from Nadia Boulanger. Although every mid-western American city was said to have had a music teacher who’d once been a pupil of Boulanger, the same was not true of Australia. As best I can determine the genealogy is thus:

  • James Penberthy (1917-1999)
    • Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
      • Gabriel Faure (1845-1924)
        • Louis Niedermeyer (1802-1861)
          • Emanual Aloys Forster (1748-1823)
            • Johann Georg Pausewang (1738-1812)
        • Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921)
          • Fromental Halevy (1799-1862)
            • Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842)

I am greatly pleased to find myself a composition student descendant of Cherubini, whose sublime string quartets influenced and were influenced by those of Mendelssohn.

For piano, I was very privileged to be taught by nuns of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy, initially Sr Claver Butler RSM (ca.1930-2009), and then later Sr Clare Castle RSM (ca.1920-2000). Sr Claver enabled me, unlike all her previous students, to encounter music first through an understanding of theory rather than through practice, which (we found through trial-and-error) suited far better my top-down mode of thinking, evident, apparently, even as a child. Sr Clare, with an articulate self-confidence that intimidated others but which enlivened me, left me with the thought that nervousness in performance was to be welcomed, since “placid people never achieve anything.” Although not taught by her, I was also given valuable advice and help by fellow-organist Dot Crowe (ca.1915-1975), a pianist and organist who had led her own swing jazz band in the Northern Rivers of NSW in the 1940s, Dot Crowe and the Arcadian Six.

For tuba, I was taught by my trombonist father and by trumpeter Frederick Wedd (1891-1972). Wedd had been one of the trumpeters selected to play a fanfare for the arrival in Australia in May 1920 of the future King Edward VIII on his 1920 Royal Tour of Australia. For saxophone, my teacher Sig. Leopoldo Mugnai is a great-grand-pupil of Marcel Mule (1901-2001), so that makes me Mule’s great-great-grand-pupil. In violin, I once had some lessons from Mr Leo Birsen, whose genealogy was:

  • Leo Birsen (1902-1992)
    • Jeno Hubay (1858-1937)
      • Joseph Joachim (1831-1907)
        • Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847)
          • Eduard Rietz (1802-1832)
            • Johann Friedrich Ritz (1767-1828) (ER’s father)
            • Pierre Rode (1774-1830)
              • Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824)

Subsequently, I have had lessons from two fine teachers whose genealogies are as follows. My first teacher Ms Gisela Soares was taught by:

  • Philip Heyman
  • Ryszard Woycicki
    • Stefan Kamasa (1930 – )
      • Jan Rakowski (1898-1962)
        • Karola Wierzuchowskiego
      • Tadeusz Wronski (1915-2000)
      • P. Pasquier

And my second teacher Dr Claudio Forcada was taught by:

  • Goncal Comellas Fabrega (1945- )
    • Joan Massia i Prats (1890-1969)
      • Alfred Marchot (1861-1939)
        • Eugene Ysaye (1858-1931)
          • Henryk Wieniawski (1835-1880)
          • Henry Vieuxtemps (1820-1881)

Here, parallel indents show a student of multiple teachers. Thus, Ysaye was taught by both Wieniawksi and Vieuxtemps.
As it happens, Wieniawksi was also a pupil of Vieuxtemps.

Note: This post has been updated several times, most recently on 2023-03-01.

Mendelssohn in Wigmore Street

At Wigmore Hall last night was a thrilling performance by the Scottish Ensemble, a string orchestra, together with Scottish pianist Alasdair Beatson. The program comprised works by Stravinsky and by Mendelssohn.  Both the Stravinsky pieces were  rhythmically complex, but hard to parse otherwise – melodic invention, as so often with this composer, was absent and large-scale musical form, if indeed any was present, was not discernible from a single hearing.

I have remarked before that music instantiates or executes a thought process, and some music involves thinking processes that are alien to me.  Most of Stravinsky’s late music is in this category, while that in his middle phase (in the so-called NeoClassical style), while not alien, is quite often banal.  Yet his early music speaks to me profoundly. Last night’s two pieces were clearly challenging to perform well, with the subtle rhythmic interactions and off-piste counting, despite their unpleasant listening.

What I lost there, however, was more than compensated by the Mendelssohn.  The first half saw the Ensemble play two of his Four Pieces for String Quartet, which really should be called “four pieces for String Quartet”, since the composer never grouped them together in this way.  The fugue of the first piece, furiously intense, gives the lie to the claim one still sometimes hears that Mendelssohn’s music lacks profundity or intensity. The playing and cohesion here was superb, and as always with this fugue, spine-chilling. It would be nice to hear this group play some of Mendelssohn’s 12 string symphonies, particularly the fugal movements of the later symphonies.

The real excitement last night came with Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings, in which Alasdair Beatson played piano and Jonathan Morton, solo violin.   Morton also joined in the ensemble parts when not soloing.  I know this piece very well, although I can recall only once hearing it in performance.  The placement of the performers was somewhat strange, with the high and middle strings behind the piano (and hence behind the upraised lid), dulling their sound.

In any case, the performance was thrilling in the extreme. Beatson captured the many, varied moods of the piano part – from church-like chorale harmonies, through rolling, lieder-style accompaniments for a cantabile violin, to a tempestuousness that made the instrument sound like an angry, rampaging animal.     You can tell how good Mendelssohn was as a pianist himself just by listening to this part, and also how much he enjoyed playing.   The first movement, particularly, has flourishes of pleasure and delight throughout.

Strange, then, was the positioning on stage of the two soloists, with the violinist standing behind the pianist. The first movement has such witty interplay between the two performers – calls-and-responses, mimicry, quoting, and transforming, etc – that for each player not to be able to see the eyes of the other seems untenable.   I cannot imagine young Felix on piano and Eduard Rietz, his friend and violin teacher, for whom this music was written, not facing each other and smiling with each returned flourish.

Like the Australia Chamber Orchestra, most members of the Scottish Ensemble stand while performing.  As with the ACO,  this strikes me as an insidious type of ageism, and is entirely unnecessary.  Only young or very fit people can do this, and one wonders at what average age of ensemble members will the group regain their commonsense. Also, for the historical record, Beatson’s pages were turned by one of the hall staff: even the stage-hands at the Wigmore can read music, apparently.


Stravinsky:  Concerto in D
Mendelssohn:  Capriccio and Fugue from opus 81 (arranged Morton)
Stravinsky:  Concertino (arranged Morton)
Mendelssohn:  Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings in D minor.

A review of another concert in the same tour, in Dundee, is here.

This concert is listed in my concatenation of live music events.

Poem: Lines for a Friend 1948-1964

Writing just now about Mendelssohn’s sorrow at the death of his close friend, Edward Rietz, brought to mind this poem by Australian poet Michael Dransfield (1948-1973):

Lines for a Friend 1948-1964
“Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath.” – Tennyson
over before you knew it
misdiagnosed and done for
they cremated their error
you became some ashes a little placque a case history
paintings you did are lost also your poems
nothing but ashes in a wall of dead remains
you will not see again the way
the morning sun floods down O’Connell Street
perhaps you are the sun now
perhaps not
childhood was the salt edge of the Pacific
was the school under the old trees
it was soon after that they disposed of you
I went to the funeral you and I were the only two
there really the only two who knew the gods had gone
death and morning the only two,
damned because poets
over before we know it
we pack our lives in little souls and go
out with the tide the long procession
the ant the elephant the worker the child
even those doctors who stood around they will die sometime
their money cannot buy them out of it
we know what is to come a silence teeming
with the unfinished spirits good and bad,
and how we’ve lived determines what we’ll be
next time around, if time’s not buried with us.

Thomas W. Shapcott (Editor) [1970]:  Australian Poetry Now. Melbourne, Australia:  Sun Books, p. 210.

Deaf and blind musicology

Looking through some old scores, I come across the following note written by one Edouard Lindenberg, and copyrighted 1951:

Schumann said of Mendelssohn that his first name, Felix (happy) suited him admirably.  Mendelssohn was, in fact, of a carefree disposition, full of gaiety and optimism, and he was spared material cares.  Sorrow almost always passed him by – he never experienced any really severe shocks of any kind. Is it on this account that his music never attains the highest summits?  Or was it perhaps that he was too universally gifted – for he spoke several languages, read Greek fluently and had translated Terence; he was, moreover, one of Hegel’s best pupils and his talent as a draughtsman and painter in watercolours was very superior to that of an ordinary amateur.”

What an amazing person Lindenberg must have been!  He was clearly deaf, because even a short acquaintance with Mendelssohn’s music would tell you that the composer had experienced profound sorrows and emotions, and had expressed these in his music.  Listen to his last quartet, written after the death of his sister, Fanny, for example, or the two violin concertos.  Or listen to the opening orchestral number of the oratorio Elijah, which, again and again and again, seems about to resolve but has its resolution postponed, thereby expressing  human anguish better than any other composer before or since.
But my amazement at this man Lindenberg is even stronger.  He must also have been blind as well as deaf, since his concert note (concerning the Hebrides overture) then quotes from a letter Mendelssohn wrote from Paris on 21 January 1832.

I cannot have the Hebrides played here because I don’t consider the work finished yet.  The central section ff in D major is very stupid, and the whole development smells more of counterpoint than of seagulls and fish – whereas it should be the other way round.  And I am too fond of it to be played as is stands.”

But just two weeks later Mendelssohn wrote the following letter, immediately after hearing of the unexpected death from tuberculosis of his violin teacher and close friend, Eduard Rietz (1802-1832).  Surely, unless he was blind, Lindenberg must have also seen this, the very next letter in the published edition of Mendelssohn’s letters:

You will, I am sure, excuse my writing you only a few words to-day:  it is but yesterday that I heard of my irreparable loss.  Many hopes, and a pleasant bright period of my life have departed with him, and I never again can feel so happy.  I must now set about forming new plans, and building fresh castles in the air; the former ones are irrevocably gone, for he was interwoven [page-break] with them all.  As I shall never be able to think of my boyish days, nor of the ensuing ones, without connecting him with them, so I had hoped, till now, that it might be the same with those to come. I must endeavour to inure myself to this, but the  fact that I can recall no one thing without being reminded of him, that I shall never hear music, or write it, without thinking of  him, doubles the sorrow of such a separation.  The former days are now indeed departed, but it is not these alone that I lose, but also the man I so sincerely loved.  Had I never had any, or had I lost all cause for loving him, I must without a cause have loved him all the same. He loved me too, and the knowledge that there was such a man in the world – one on whom I could rely, who lived to love me, and whose wishes and aims were identical with my own – this is all over: it is the hardest blow that has yet befallen me, and never shall I forget it.
This was the celebration of my birthday.  When I was listening to Baillot on Tuesday, and said to Hiller that I only knew one violinist who could play the music I loved for me, L______ was standing beside me, and knew what had happened, but did not give me the letter. He was not aware indeed that yesterday was my birthday, but he broke it to me by degrees yesterday morning, and then I recalled previous anniversaries, and took a review of the past, as every one should on his birthday; I remembered how invariably on this day he arrived with some special gift which he had long [page-break] thought of, and which was always as pleasing, and agreeable, and welcome as himself.  My day was very sad; I could neither do anything, not think of anything, but the one subject.
To-day I have compelled myself to work, and succeeded.  My overture in A minor is finished.  I think of writing some pieces here, which will be well remunerated.
I beg you will tell me every particular about him, and every detail, no matter how trifling; it will be a comfort to me to hear of him once more.  The octet parts, so neatly copied by him, are lying before me at this moment, and remind me of him.   I hope shortly to recover my usual spirits, and to be able to write to you cheerfully and more at length.  A new chapter in my life has begun, but as yet there is no title.
— Your Felix. ”

[Mendelssohn-Bartholdy 1864/1870, pp. 327-329, letter from Paris (to Fanny?), dated 1832-02-04]

To imagine that a privileged person does not suffer normal human sorrows in the same way that the rest of us do is a peculiar form of irrationality, contrary to all human experience.  To further imagine that such a person is not capable of profound artistic expression despite the evidence of own’s own senses is just perverse.  But Mendelssohn seems to have attracted the perverse among his critics, from the explicit anti-semitism of Richard Wagner to the anti-Victorianism (and possible anti-semitism) of George Bernard Shaw.
Edouard Lindenberg [1951]: F. Mendelssohn  Fingal’s Cave (Hebrides Overture) Op. 26. Paris, France:  Heugel & Companie.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy [1864/1870]: Letters from Italy and Switzerland. Translated by Grace, Lady Wallace.  Fifth Edition. London, UK:   Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1870.  Includes preface to the First Edition, dated 1864-04-22.