Musical influence

Listening to the string quarters of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), his Basque composition student Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826), and those of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), we can hear the influence of musical ideas. I thought it interesting to list their quartets in the order they were composed. (In the list below, each quartet is prefaced by the composer’s initials.). Arriaga’s three quartets were published in 1824, but may have been written well before.  It is interesting that Cherubini had only written one string quartet before meeting Arriaga, while after Arriaga’s three were written, Cherubini then wrote another five.
1814: LG Quartet No. 1 in Eb major
1822 October: Arriaga moved to Paris from Bilbao
1824: JA Quartet No.1 in D minor
1824: JA Quartet No. 2 in A major
1824: JA Quartet No.3 in Eb major
1825 Spring: Mendelssohn’s father took his son to Paris to visit with Cherubini, and while there Mendelssohn may also have met with Arriaga
1825: FM Octet in Eb major, Op. 20
1826: Death of Arriaga
1827: FM Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13
1829: LC Quartet No. 2 in C major
1829: FM Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 12
1834: LC Quartet No. 3 in D minor
1835: LC Quartet No. 4 in E
1835: LC Quartet No. 5 in F
1837: LC Quartet No. 6 in A minor
1837: FM Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2
1838: FM Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 44, No. 1
1842: Death of Cherubini
1847: FM Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80
1847: Death of Mendelssohn.
 

Wowsers

The views of philosopher Peter Singer have always struck me as humourless and puritanical.  Confirmation of a conflict in our respective values comes today in a quotation from his latest book in a review in the NYT by Dwight Garner:

Writing about the sale of paintings by artists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol for obscene sums at Christie’s, he declares: “Why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these? They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill. They are not even unusual within the artist’s oeuvres. Do an image search for ‘Barnett Newman’ and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all the variations.”

Well, others may see these art works as beautiful, so it takes some arrogance to assert the contrary subjective opinion as if it were objective fact. As well as learning how much he values his own aesthetic judgment over anyone else’s, from this we also learn that Singer does not like modern art; he apparently also lacks the capability of seeing the beauty inherent in subtle variations of a single, simple theme. The first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth must also not be to his taste, for working out all the variations of the one idea is all that movement is. And let us not mention the minimalist works of JS Bach, where there may be even fewer ideas than one.

Even when his works of art are considered individually, some of Newman’s art is sublime, for example, the painting “Midnight Blue,” (pictured), currently on display at the Royal Academy in London, as part of the RA’s Abstract Expressionism Exhibition.    In my experience, to appreciate the sublime, one needs to disengage one’s left-brain (for right-handed people) – the verbal, rational, sequential side – and seek to appreciate the work with one’s right-brain – the intuitive, holistic side;  in other words:  don’t think about the painting, just feel it.  Most English-language philosophers, in my experience, are all left-brain, all the time. (George Santayana, who wrote poetry as well as philosophy, was perhaps an exception.)
And to mention only the beauty of an art work, or the supposed artistic skill needed for its creation, would seem to indicate an impoverished view of the many purposes and functions of art.  At least one purpose of painting, and a common motivation for people who paint, is not to produce beautiful (or indeed, ugly) objects, but to express oneself through the act of painting. This was famously the purpose of the artists who came to be called abstract expressionists, of whom Newman is one.  Closely related, one  may  also paint in order to express the feelings one has while engaged in the act of painting.  (See here for a discussion of this purpose, and here for lists of reasons why people may draw or make music. Beauty is not the half of it.)  Nothing in Singer’s words indicates that he has any appreciation of these other purposes, or that he has even read or reflected on the extensive literature in philosophy, history, theology, and anthropology on art and aesthetics.   Of course, one can be a famous philosopher without knowing much of anything except one’s own special topic and being blind to non-verbal ways of knowing and understanding, as the humourless Bertrand Russell showed.
 

Bush violins

Bernard O’Reilly (1903-1975), of Green Mountains fame, writing about his bush childhood in the Kanimbla Valley, NSW:

That music! – accordians and concertinas [page break]- low brow, but who is so high brow or blasé that he doesn’t secretly enjoy such music?  But best were the violins and they were played by men to whom violin playing had come as legacies from father to son and on to grandson. Their music was a thing apart, it had the quality of antiquity which is only possible where father had taught son and no outside influence or technique had been allowed to creep in.  Thinking back now it is impossible for me to say whether or not they played well from a technical point of view – you wouldn’t even think of that whilst you listened.  The violin became a live thing in their hands; it didn’t merely express their moods and feelings, but it commanded and all who listened followed as they would the Piper of Hamelin through moods of tenderness, through sorrow and through wild joy.
Are they all gone, these men? No, there is one left. Our old neighbour, Pat Cullen, of Long Swamp, has lived beyond his four score years, but in his hands, that old brown violin can still make you dance or laugh or cry.” (pages 37-38)

 
Reference:
Bernard O’Reilly [1944]: Cullenbenbong. Brisbane: WR Smith and Paterson Pty Ltd.  My copy was purchased in 1945 by Burl Ives.

Female composers

Louise-Farrenc
Several newspapers have recently carried reviews of a new book presented short biographies of 8 female composers (Beer 2016).  It is certainly true that female composers have suffered from misogyny, and probably still do. But the situation is more subtle than it may appear at first.  The discrimination may arise because composers such as Fanny Hensel (neé Mendelssohn) wrote mostly for small-scale, intimate forms, such as lieder and solo piano.  Hensel wrote no operas or concertos or symphonies, as far as I know.   Since the industrial revolution our society, one could argue, has favoured the grand and the grandiose, so anyone who writes only in small forms is ignored.   This is true even of male composers:  Hugo Wolf, who wrote art song, is unjustly overlooked, for instance.   (This bias for the big and bombastic could also be a strongly male one.)  Against this argument that composers need to go large or be ignored, one could cite the case of nineteenth century French composer Louise Farrenc (pictured), who wrote symphonies and full-length chamber works (indeed, very good ones), yet still was ignored by the musical establishment.  Despite her music being as good as Schumann’s or Mendelssohn’s, she still is ignored.  Even Beer does not, apparently, profile her.
Hensel’s brother, Felix, was a symphonist and composer of overtures who audibly honed his technical craft writing a dozen string symphonies for the pick-up orchestra his mother assembled for the family’s weekly salon concerts each Sunday afternoon in Berlin.  Very few women composers have had such an advantage, which perhaps explains something of Felix Mendelssohn’s comparative abilities.   But Fanny Mendelssohn certainly had access to this resource.  What explains her failure to write for it? Was it some pressure in the family, or just in herself?  Did their parents, perhaps unconsciously and subtly, expect Felix to write pieces for the family salons, but not expect Fanny to do so? Was it a matter of social and class expectations of gender roles which the family had internalised? Or was Fanny simply lacking in confidence?   She once wrote a song to secretly communicate her love for the man who later became her husband at a time when her parents refused to allow the pair to meet or write letters, so it seems she could disobey the spirit of any explicit family imposition, if not the letter.
Or are we looking in the wrong place entirely here?  The Mendelssohns’ father and his brothers were bankers.  Felix’s father took him to Paris as a teenager to meet Cherubini explicitly to assess whether the boy had a future as a composer.  It is easy to imagine that his father wanted him to follow in the family bank, so perhaps Felix had to fight to get to be a composer. It was not, perhaps, that the family discouraged Fanny in particular from a career as a composer but that both children were thus discouraged, but only Felix resisted this pressure.  To be honest, however, Felix’s published letters do not reveal any such discouragement from their parents.
Reference:
Anna Beer [2016]: Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. Oneworld, London, auK.

Metaphorical weathermen

Weather Underground Logo
On 14 January 1965 in New York City, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and the single was released on 8 March 1965.  The song includes the lines:

You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.

The metaphor expressed in these lines was very influential.  For instance, the main left-wing armed terrorist movement in the USA, formed in 1969, called itself Weatherman, or The Weathermen, later calling itself The Weather Underground.
Was the metaphor originally due to Dylan?  We can answer NO to that question.   On 18 March 1957, Time magazine reported on political events in Poland, where the ruling Polish United Workers Party had recently seen some liberalization of its earlier Stalinism (and the return to power of reformist communist Wladyslaw Gomulka), followed by something of a reversal back to hard-line policies.  The Time article began:

There is usually one Communist who knows the way the wind is blowing long before the official weather vanes swing into line. In stormy Poland he is a longtime Stalinist timeserver named Jerzy Putrament. When Wladyslaw Gomulka broke with Moscow last October, Comrade Putrament was so enthusiastic in Gomulka’s support that Pravda publicly rebuked him for saying that he preferred “imperialist Coca-Cola to the best home-distilled vodka.” Last month Weatherman Putrament held up a moist forefinger and got the feel of a new breeze blowing through Poland.

Continue reading ‘Metaphorical weathermen’

Transitions 2015

People who have passed on during 2015, whose life or works have influenced me:

  • Yogi Berra (1925-2015), American baseball player
  • Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), American jazz musician
  • Robert Conquest (1917-2015), British kremlinologist
  • Malcolm Fraser (1930-2015), Australian politician
  • Jaako Hintikka (1929-2015), Finnish philosopher and logician
  • Lisa Jardine (1944-2015), British historian
  • Joan Kirner (1938-2015), Australian politician, aka “Mother Russia”
  • Kurt Masur (1927-2015), East German conductor
  • John Forbes Nash (1928-2015), American mathematician
  • Boris Nemtsov (1959-2015), Russian politician
  • Oliver Sacks (1933-2015), British-American neurologist and writer
  • Gunter Schabowski (1929-2015), East German politician
  • Alex Schalck-Golodkowski (1932-2015), East German politician
  • Gunther Schuller (1925-2015), American composer and musician (and French horn player on Miles Davis’ 1959 album, Porgy and Bess).
  • Brian Stewart (1922-2015), British intelligence agent.
  • Ward Swingle (1927-2015), American singer and jazz musician.

Last year’s post is here.

Musical Instrument Museums

For reasons of record, here is a list of musical instrument museums, ordered by their location:

  • Athens, Greece: Museum of Popular Musical Instruments
  • Berlin, Germany: Musikinstrumenten Museum
  • Brussels, Belgium: Musical Instrument Museum
  • Monte Estoril, Portugal: Museum of Portuguese Music, Casa Verdades de Faria
  • New York, NY, USA: Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Phoenix, AZ, USA: Musical Instrument Museum
  • Rome, Italy: Museo di Strumenti Musicali dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia
  • Vermillion, SD, USA: National Music Museum, University of South Dakota
  • Vienna, Austria: Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Paris life – brunch

Les Frangines Montparnasse Paris
Cafe Les Frangines, 46 Rue Raymond Losserand, Montparnasse 75014 Paris, France. Soundtrack: Dixieland and klezmer – trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano, accordian, double bass.

Mendelssohn & Lind: Nothing to see here, please move along!

In January 2009, the Independent published a story speculating on an affair between the composer Felix Mendelssohn and the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind. I have only just discovered that the Journal of the Royal Musical Association published an article by George Biddlecombe in 2013 which purports to get to the bottom of this story, and concludes that “Mendelssohn wrote passionate love letters to Jenny Lind entreating her to join him in an adulterous relationship and threatening suicide as a means of exerting pressure upon her”.

But the evidence presented in the paper supports no such claims. A half-competent lawyer for the defence could drive a coach and pair through the material presented here. A paper written in 2013 refers to two documents (not apparently in the public domain) written in 1980, describing a post-prandial conversation in 1947, a conversation about some letters allegedly discovered at Lind’s death in 1887, letters which were purportedly written by Mendelssohn to Lind before his own death in 1847. Where are these letters? Allegedly burnt at the time of their re-discovery in 1887. Who read them? As far as I can tell from Biddlecombe’s paper, possibly only Lind’s widower, Otto Goldschmidt, a man who died in 1907. What language were they written in? Presumably German, since that was Mendelssohn’s mother tongue, and I believe Lind spoke it. Could the various English solicitors who pepper this story and who MAY have been present at the discovery and burning of the letters in 1887 read German? Even if they could, did anyone other than Goldschmidt actually read the letters?

Did these letters actually exist? This is not obvious to me, and the evidence is only third- and fourth-hand. But even if they did exist, we have only Otto Goldschmidt’s alleged word, at several removes over 126 years, to say that the letters contained statements of passion by Mendelssohn to Lind. They may have been shopping lists, for all we know with certainty. Even though the various intermediaries in this Heath Robertson-like story may have been lawyers of integrity, and fine, upstanding men (as Biddlecombe seeks to show), who knows what Goldschmidt’s motivations may have been, whether in 1887 or later. All here is hearsay, and hearsay repeated after long intervals of time, and buried in obscure documents not open to our inspection. No court would accept such ramshackle, hearsay evidence for the claims made in this paper. And perhaps George Biddlecombe also realizes this, since he includes a discussion of other sources (eg, third-party letters, memoirs) to buttress the claim of an affair. But these other sources, too, I find to be less than compelling. A hill of beans is what they don’t add up to.

What a shame that this paper traduces the reputations of two people, both long dead, on such flimsy grounds. What a shame that others rush to endorse its argument. The problem is both too much imagination and too little. An affair is imagined when the evidence – the firm, uncontestable, irrefutable evidence – does not support any such claim. At the same time, there is a failure to imagine that two people can have a deep, intense friendship without also being lovers.

Reference:

George Biddlecombe [2013]: Secret letters and a missing memorandum: New light on the personal relationship between Felix Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind. Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 138 (1): 47-83.

Another response to these allegations, here.

A great Norwegian Messiah

Until this month, the best performance of the Messiah I ever heard was in 2011, an event I recorded here. I have now heard its equal.

This latest Messiah was performed on 19 December 2014 by The BBC Singers and the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, in an arrangement by Stian Aareskjold, under David Hill (conductor), with Fflur Wyn (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Samuel Boden (tenor) and Mark Stone (bass), in Temple Church, as part of Temple Winter Festival.

My heart sank when I first saw that the music had been arranged for wind-band, since groups of woodwinds, so often shrill and ineffectual, are not my favourite ensembles. But in fact this version turned out to be a wonderful arrangement and was realized in a thrilling performance. The secret, I think, was that the ensemble included a double bass and cello, some marvelous natural horns and three sackbuts, and, most spectacularly, saxophones. The solo for soprano sax in “O Thou That Tellest” played by Kristin Haagensen was just superb. That solo soared, as so did the saxes on “Surely He Hath Borne our Griefs and with His Stripes we are Healed”. A modern Briton, of course, cannot easily hear baroque music played by saxophones without thinking of Michael Nyman, and, just as with his great music, this was a truly sublime experience. The trombones in “He Trusted in God” were also inspired. Mr Aareskjold should be congratulated on this arrangement, and I hope it is soon recorded.

In addition, the performance rocked, and often literally. I was sitting as close to the orchestra as I could possibly get, and even had the two baroque trumpeters between me and the orchestra for the second half – Stian Aareskjold and Torgeir Haara, who had played angelically from the organ loft in the first half. (They played from iPads controlled by foot pedals.) So I could see the movement of choir and players as they performed, and there was a distinct bounce in some of the numbers, particularly in “His Yoke is Easy”. Perhaps the presence of saxes played by jazz musicians, who (unlike most classical musicians) move in time to their playing, led to this. Mr Aareskjold is the son of a trumpeter and the grandson of a trombone player (the reverse of my own ancestry), and brass players are often crossover musicians. The Church acoustics were, as usual here, superb.

For the “Hallelujah” Chorus, only part of the audience stood. Until this performance, I had never heard of the action of standing being construed as showing support for monarchical systems of government, and, frankly, such an interpretation is ridiculous. One stands for the “Hallelujah” because it is a tradition to do so, even if a tradition started by a Hanoverian monarch. Like Karl Marx, I believe traditions are the collected errors of past generations. But, like Morton Feldman, I’ve realized in adulthood that errors are not necessarily always to be avoided.
The concert is available to listen until mid January 2015, via BBC Radio 3. The Ensemble hails from Halden, a town of just 30,000 people. It was nice that the people sitting near me also came from there, and had brought with them tourist brochures to entice us to visit the town. I took one, of course, as it gave to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.
And on the way out of the Middle Temple, in the offices of law-firm Gibson, Dunne & Crutcher in Temple Avenue, a late-working Friday evening team could be seen around a white board, making at least one observer envious of their camaraderie and collective efforts. How much fun it looked!