Archive for the 'Music' Category

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 one 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 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 fantastical 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. George Biddlecombe surely knows this, for why else would he resort to a discussion of other sources (eg, third-party letters, memoirs) to buttress his claim of an affair? But these other sources, too, are 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.




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. 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.

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!




Charles Burney

This post is a history of the family of Charles Burney FRS (1726-1814), musician and musicologist, and his ancestors and descendants.

Sir MacBurney was one of the 60 Knights who participated in a jousting tournament, supervised by Geoffrey Chaucer on the orders of Richard II, held at Smithfield in London in 1390.

One James Macburney is said to have come south to London from Scotland with King James I and VI in 1603.   His descendant (likely a grandson), also James Macburney, was born around 1653 and had a house in Whitehall.   His son, also called James Macburney (1678-1749), was born in Great Hanwood, Shropshire, around 1678, and attended Westminster School in London.   In 1697, he eloped with Rebecca Ellis, against his father’s wishes. As a consequence, the younger James was not left anything when his father died.  The  younger man’s stepbrother, Joseph Macburney (born of a second wife) was left the entire estate of their father.

This younger James Macburney (1678-1749) was a dancer, violinist and painter, and was supposedly a wit and bon viveur.  He and Rebecca Ellis had 15 children over 20 years, of whom 9 survived into adulthood.   By 1720, he had moved to Shrewsbury,  and Rebecca had died.  He married again, to Ann Cooper, who apparently brought money to the union which helped her somewhat feckless husband. This second marriage produced 5 further children, among whom were Richard Burney (1723-1792) (christened “Berney”).  The last two children were twins, Charles Burney (1726-1814) and Susanna (1726-1734?), who died at the age of 8.  Their father James had apparently dropped the prefix “Mac” around the time of the birth of the  twins.

One of Charles’ half-brothers was James Burney (1710-1789), who was organist at St. Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury, for 54 years, from 1732 to 1786. Charles Burney worked as his assistant from 1742 until 1744.

For a period, Charles Burney and his family lived in Isaac Newton’s former house at 35 St Martin’s Street, Leicester Square, London.  Among Charles’ children were:

  • Esther Burney (1749-1832), harpsichordist, who married her cousin Charles Rousseau Burney (1747-1819), also a keyboardist and violinist.
  • Rear Admiral James Burney RN FRS (1750-1821), naval historian and sailor, who twice sailed around the world with Captain James Cook RN.
  • Fanny Burney, later Madame d’Arblay (1752-1840), novelist and playwright.
  • Rev. Charles Burney FRS (1757-1817), classical scholar.
  • Charlotte Ann Burney, later Mrs Broome (1761-1838), novelist.
  • Sarah Harriet Burney (1772-1844), novelist.

Charles’ nephew, Edward Francisco Burney (1760-1848), artist and violinist, was a brother to Charles Rousseau Burney, both sons of Richard Burney (1723-1792), Charles’s elder brother.  This is a self-portrait of Edward Francisco Burney (Creative Commons License from National Portrait Gallery, London):

image

In 1793, Fanny Burney married Alexandre-Jean-Baptiste Piochard D’Arblay (1754-1818), an emigre French aristocrat and soldier, and adjutant-general to Lafayette. Their son, Alexander d’Arblay (1794-1837), was a poet and keen chess-player, and was 10th wrangler in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge in 1818, where he was a friend of fellow-student Charles Babbage.  He was also a member of Babbage’s Analytical Society (forerunner of the Cambridge Philosophical Society), which sought to introduce modern analysis, including Leibnizian notation for the differential calculus, into mathematics teaching at Cambridge. d’Arblay was ordained and served as founding minister of Camden Town Chapel (later the Greek Orthodox All Saints Camden) from 1824-1837, and then served briefly at Ely Chapel in High Holborn, London. The founding organist at Camden Town Chapel was Samuel Wesley (1766-1837).

Not everyone was a fan of clan Burney. Here is William Hazlitt:

“There are whole families who are born classical, and are entered in the heralds’ college of reputation by the right of consanguinity. Literature, like nobility, runs in the blood. There is the Burney family. There is no end of it or its pretensions. It produces wits, scholars, novelists, musicians, artists in ‘numbers numberless.’ The name is alone a passport to the Temple of Fame. Those who bear it are free of Parnassus by birthright. The founder of it was himself an historian and a musician, but more of a courtier and man of the world than either. The secret of his success may perhaps be discovered in the following passage, where, in alluding to three eminent performers on different instruments, he says: ‘These three illustrious personages were introduced at the Emperor’s court,’ etc.; speaking of them as if they were foreign ambassadors or princes of the blood, and thus magnifying himself and his profession. This overshadowing manner carries nearly everything before it, and mystifies a great many. There is nothing like putting the best face upon things, and leaving others to find out the difference. He who could call three musicians ‘personages’ would himself play a personage through life, and succeed in his leading object. Sir Joshua Reynolds, remarking on this passage, said: ‘No one had a greater respect than he had for his profession, but that he should never think of applying to it epithets that were appropriated merely to external rank and distinction.’ Madame d’Arblay, it must be owned, had cleverness enough to stock a whole family, and to set up her cousin-germans, male and female, for wits and virtuosos to the third and fourth generation. The rest have done nothing, that I know of, but keep up the name.” (On the Aristocracy of Letters, 1822).

References:

ODNB

K. S. Grant: ” Charles Burney”, Grove Music Online. (Accessed 2006-12-10.)

POST MOST RECENTLY UPDATED:  2014-08-30.




Juju

Juju-Shorter

Wayne Shorter’s album Juju was recorded at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on 3 August 1964, 50 years ago today.  The ensemble comprised Shorter on tenor sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Reginald Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.  The album has six original compositions, all by Shorter; the modern remastered version has two alternative takes. The music is sublime.




The Lamberts

Lambert-George-AcrossTheBlackSoilPlains-1899

From sometime before 1933 right down to the present day, members of my family have had on their walls reproductions of George Lambert’s 1899 Wynne-Prize-winning painting Across the Black Soil Plains, and so this image is part of my cultural heritage. (Image due to AGNSW.)

George Washington Thomas Lambert (1873-1930) was an Australian artist born, after his father had died, in St Petersburg of an American father and English mother.  The family emigrated to New South Wales in 1887.  In Australia, he is most famous for his painting, Across the Black Soil Plains, now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which was based on his time living at Warren, NSW.  During WWI, he was an official Australian war artist.

George’s son, Leonard Constant Lambert (1905-1951) was a jazz-age British composer and conductor, and co-founder of Sadler’s Wells dance company.

Constant’s son, Christopher (“Kit”) Sebastian Lambert (1935-1981) was a record producer and manager, and part-creator of rock band, The Who.




Earth moving in Folkestone

SSQ Festival 2014

Two life-changing concerts this weekend, both including Finnish violin virtuoso, Pekka Kuusisto, and both in Folkestone as part of the annual Sacconi Quartet’s Chamber Music Festival.  The first was a  concert in St. Mary and St. Eanswythe’s Church that included the Sacconi Quartet and the Chamber Orchestra of the Royal College of Music. With PK, they performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and knowing they would was the main reason for my attendance.  PK’s recording of Vivaldi is the most exciting and thrilling I know.  But this live performance was on another plane entirely.  Usually The Seasons are twee and effete and smugly complacent.  PK’s recording is not that, but rather raw and rustic.  (See my comments here.) The live performance, in contrast, was sharp and edgy, thrilling and exciting too but in a different way entirely to the recording.  If Vivaldi is usually suburban Barnet gemütlichkeit, then the recording is from the wild places of Cornwall or the Hebrides, and this performance was from the mean streets of Toxteth or Mile End.

PK’s playing as always was superb. He has an amazing ability to mimic the breathy tone of a flute, producing a sound sublime, something I have heard him do before in very different work.  Yet, at other times it was if he construed the violin as a percussion instrument, not hitting it with his hand but striking the strings in a multitude of carefully-calibrated ways with the bow.  Later, in the pub after the second concert, he agreed that this notion of the percussive violin described his intention.  Violinists often see the instrument as a sort of uncanny extension of themselves, and here was an extension that was brash, direct, and forceful – someone who is here to live out loud, in Zola’s great phrase.  How different to the twee Vivaldi of most other performances I have seen.

In addition, PK treated the work as a modern work, interpreting it afresh – moving around the stage, for example, to confront directly the other players in the various duets and rounds, having face-offs at various times, and interacting physically and with immediacy in accord with the temper of each phase of the music.  The other performers responded in kind to his enthusiasm.  The acoustics in the church were excellent, so that everything could be heard well.  This was certainly the best musical experience of my life, and I feel immensely privileged to have witnessed it.

The second concert followed straight afterwards, in the primary school across the street.  We were party to a violin and electronics meditation on Bach’s Partita in D minor, by PK and Teemu Korpipaa.  The movements of the Bach were played without modification by solo violin, and interleaved with duo improvisations on what we had just heard.  This was also sublime, and had the effect of elongating and deepening the emotions invoked by the Bach, an annotation that added to the original.  It was clear the two had worked together before, and so the annotations were profound and heartfelt.




Mao Tse Tung, music teacher

Szabo-Daniel-hands

Learn to “play the piano”. In playing the piano, all ten fingers are in motion; it will not do to move some fingers only and not others. However, if all ten fingers press down at once, there is no melody. To produce good music, the ten fingers should move rhythmically and in co-ordination. A Party committee should keep a firm grasp on its central task and at the same time, around the central task, it should unfold the work in other fields. At present, we have to take care of many fields; we must look after the work in all the areas, armed units and departments, and not give all our attention to a few problems, to the exclusion of others. Wherever there is a problem, we must put our finger on it, and this is a method we must master. Some play the piano well and some badly, and there is a great difference in the melodies they produce. Members of Party committees must learn to “play the piano” well.”

Mao Tse-Tung [1949-03-13]: Methods of Work of Party Committees. Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 379.  The hands are those of Hungarian jazz pianist, Szabo Daniel.




Musical ignorance

You won’t find this blog doing late-breaking news or commentary.   Web-browsing, I am led to a report of an interview given by Cambridge academic George Steiner to a Spanish newspaper in 2008, in which he is quoted as saying:

“It’s very easy to sit here, in this room, and say ‘racism is horrible’,” he said from his house in Cambridge, where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College since 1969.

“But ask me the same thing if a Jamaican family moved next door with six children and they play reggae and rock music all day. Or if an estate agent comes to my house and tells me that because a Jamaican family has moved next door the value of my property has fallen through the floor. Ask me then!”

In his essays and books, Steiner is a model of erudition.   But his knowledge of music is quite evidently lamentable.  In my experience, almost nobody likes BOTH reggae and rock music, and certainly no Jamaican I have known.  

Ignorance of reggae seems to be a special attribute of the literati.  VS Naipaul once described its beat as “pseudo-portentous”, a property which I have never been able to hear in the music itself.   I doubt he could either; he just liked the phrase and disliked the music.  And – like Charles Rosen with Mendelssohn – used his sharp verbal skills to seek to justify his prior musical tastes.  In both cases, the attempt fails. 

In response to Steiner’s ignorance, I decided to listen to the Master in a superb chilled-out remix:

  • Dreams of Freedom:  Ambient Translations of Bob Marley in Dub. Remix Production by Bill Laswell, Creative Direction by Chris Blackwell. Brooklyn, NY:  Island Records, 1997.

followed by some of the best industrial noise:

  • Shinjuku Filth.  Darrin Verhagen.  Melbourne: Iridium, 1999.



Paging Joe Leeway!

leeway-joeI saw James Ivory’s film Slaves of New York soon after it appeared in 1989.  The movie contains a scene set in a nightclub (minutes 63-69) with the most superb trance music, played by a male singer/guitarist and 3 female supporting musicians:  one on percussion, one on synth, and a trumpeter.   For most of this number, the trumpeter is smoking a cigarette, not playing, until near the end, when she plays while holding her smoking cigarette.  The rhythm is a consistent, driving pattern:  ta-ta-ta-ta daa daa (eg, 4 quavers followed by two crotchets) in each bar, or variants of this, with no changes of harmony, and drone-like chants over the top.  The percussion includes a regular high-pitched woodblock (or similar).

Apart from two songs both by the combo of Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer, this is the best music in the film (which apart from this music is forgettable).  Unfortunately, this track is not on the official soundtrack, and the credits at the end of the film do not identify it clearly.    The song is Mother Dearest, and the male singer (and the song’s composer) is Joe Leeway, formerly of British group, The Thompson Twins.   It is a shame that he has not released any music under his own name, and no longer seems to be working as a muso.