Saturday, February 25, 2017

Is it Chopin? A look at authenticity claims for a newly discovered photographic image

On 8th June 1847 Chopin wrote home from Paris to his family in Warsaw: "Winterhalter, too, has made a small pencil drawing for my old friend Planat de la Faye (I wrote to you about him once). It's a very good likeness. You have heard of Winterhalter, of course. He is a kind decent fellow and very talented."

In his lifetime Chopin had his portrait painted and drawn by a variety of professional and amateur artists, and judging by the discrepancy in physical characteristics many of these artists must have encountered some difficulty in capturing the composer’s likeness. Chopin had an expressive and extremely mobile face according to contemporary accounts, and could transform his appearance when entertaining friends with his brilliant impersonations. The pianist and composer Moscheles wrote of Chopin in 1839 (in a letter to his wife Charlotte): "He was lively, merry, and extremely comic in his mimicry of Pixis, Liszt, and a hunch-backed pianoforte amateur." In his biography of Chopin, published in 1863, Liszt wrote: "He displayed a rich vein of drollery in pantomime ["il déployait dans la pantomime une verve drôlatique"]. He often amused himself by reproducing the musical formulas and peculiar tricks of certain virtuosi, in the most burlesque and comic improvisations, in imitating their gestures, their movements, in counterfeiting their faces with a talent which instantaneously depicted their whole personality. His own features would then become scarcely recognizable, he could force the strangest metamorphoses upon them, but while mimicking the ugly and grotesque, he never lost his own native grace." Chopin's skill at mimicry was so well known it even appeared in a Balzac novel; in his 1844 novel "Un homme d'affaires" Balzac wrote: "Gifted with the same talent for mimicking absurdities which Chopin the pianist possesses to so high a degree, he proceeded forthwith to represent the character with startling truth."

Descriptions of Chopin’s appearance by those who knew him, including his piano pupils who often saw him on a daily basis, are fascinating in their psychological observations, though they are often short on physical detail. Wilhelm von Lenz, a pupil of Chopin, wrote in 1872, describing his first meeting with Chopin in Paris in October 1842: "Chopin soon came out to me, the card in his hand; a young man of middle height, [Chopin was around 5 foot 7 inches in height], slim [Chopin weighed around 88 pounds, i.e. a little over 6 stone], haggard, with a sad, though very expressive countenance, and elegant Parisian bearing — stood before me. I have seldom, if ever, met with an apparition so entirely engaging." Zofia Zaleska née Rosengardt, another pupil of Chopin, described Chopin in her diary in 1843: "Such noble features so full of expression but so pale, wan and thin that it seemed the smallest breath of wind would topple him over.” The newspaper The Scotsman offered the following description in an anonymous review published 10 October 1848 of Chopin's Edinburgh concert given on 4 October 1848: “The infinite delicacy and finish of his playing, combined with great occasional energy never overdone, is very striking when we contemplate the man — a slender and delicate-looking person, with a marked profile, indicating much intellectual energy.” Georges Mathias, one of Chopin's most gifted pupils, wrote this beautiful description of Chopin in a letter to his pupil Isidor Philipp on 12 February 1897: "I see Chopin resting his back against a chimney place mantelpiece. I see his face, delicate clear cut features, his not very big eyes sparkling, radiant and shimmering, his smile of unspeakable charm... It does not seem that there has ever existed such harmony between the author and his work."

Thankfully three images exist that have preserved for posterity Chopin’s true physical likeness: they are the photographic copies of two now lost daguerreotypes (from c.1845 and c.1847) and a death mask molded by Auguste Clésinger [according to anecdotal evidence it took Clésinger two attempts to obtain an accurate death mask, his first attempt likely failing due to inexperience with the process and undue haste in its creation; the second attempt was successful in as much as its accuracy appears to be confirmed when compared with the photographic images].

On 16 January 2017 the Polish Institute of Paris issued a press release announcing the existence of a possible unpublished photograph of Chopin, recently discovered by "a fine connoisseur of Frédéric Chopin", M. Alain Kohler, a Swiss physicist who in 2015 through a detailed search of Pleyel's archives had been able to track down a Pleyel piano that had once been belonged to Chopin. Given the scarcity of photographic images of Chopin the thought that a third photographic image might exist was very exciting news. However, it is always wise to greet such dramatic announcements with caution and a certain amount of skepticism: in July 2006 a gullible music world was taken in by premature announcements in the press hailing as authentic a photograph said to show the 78-year-old Constanze Mozart. Having long outlived her composer husband, dying in 1842, it was not unreasonable to presume that a photograph of Constanze Mozart could exist, but scholars quickly proved that the image in question (which first appeared with its unusual claim in 1958) could not have been taken until after her death.

Having lived in close proximity to two reproductions of Chopin’s death mask for many years, as well as good reproductions of the 1845 and 1847 daguerreotype copies, all of which adorn my music studio, I was extremely surprised when I first saw the image purported to be of Chopin, announced by the Polish Institute of Paris in January 2017. In my initial reaction I felt it bore little resemblance to the known authentic images of the composer with which I was so familiar (in particular I felt the new image lacked Chopin’s distinctive oval face). At the same time I could clearly see that the image did bear a strong similarity to stereotypical images of the composer, produced in numerous portraits (and in movies) over the years. I could also see an affinity with both the famous unfinished 1838 Delacroix painting of Chopin and with certain details of the c.1847 Louis-Auguste Bisson daguerreotype image of Chopin.

Since an announcement from the Polish Institute of Paris had to be taken seriously, I spent a great deal of time examining the new image, despite my misgivings, carefully comparing it to the Clésinger death mask. To begin with I made careful comparisons between the Clésinger death mask and the previously known c.1845 and c.1847 daguerreotype images, as a sort of control. The match up between the Clésinger death mask and these two images was easily accomplished and extraordinarily convincing: without doubt the c.1845 and c.1847 daguerreotype images and the Clésinger death mask all represent the same person in my view (and an important validation for the c.1845 daguerreotype copy whose authenticity some people still question).

[Chopin's death mask, modelled by Clésinger, compared to a copy of a daguerreotype acquired by the Polish government from the Chopin archives of Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1936, the original daguerreotype (now lost) likely to have been created after 1843 and before 1847]

[Chopin's death mask, modelled by Clésinger, compared to a copy of a daguerreotype acquired by the Polish government from the Chopin archives of Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1936, the original daguerreotype (now lost) was likely taken at the Paris studios of Louis-Auguste Bisson at 65 rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois no later than the end of 1847]

Using the same method, I then compared the Clésinger death mask with the image recently unearthed by Alain Kohler. I made many attempts but could not get the features to match up. It was clear to me that the new image and the death mask had too many differences for them to be representations of the same person.

[Chopin's death mask, modelled by Clésinger, compared to a photographic image of an unnamed person, recently discovered by Alain Kohler]

Out of curiosity I also compared the Clésinger death mask to the 1847 Winterhalter drawing mentioned by Chopin, and the match up was very close, validating Chopin’s own assessment that the Winterhalter drawing was "a very good likeness".

[Chopin's death mask, modelled by Clésinger, compared to a pencil drawing of Chopin, dated 1847, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter. Winterhalter made a number of drawings of Chopin, one of which Chopin described in a letter to his family dated 8 June 1847 as "a very good likeness"]

You can also see the comparisons between all these images in this video.

So what is the significance of the similarities between the newly discovered image and the 1838 Delacroix portrait and with certain details in the c.1847 L.A. Bisson daguerreotype image?

The image discovered by Alain Kohler and the 1838 Delacroix portrait match up very closely indeed: the head is positioned at exactly the same angle in both images and when the two images are overlapped the facial features line up almost perfectly. This is strange for two reasons: firstly, we’re comparing a photographic image with a painting; secondly, though Delacroix’s portrait is a fine representation of the passion and nobility of Chopin’s spirit it is more an idealized image of the composer rather than an accurate portrait of the composer’s physical appearance.

[Eugène Delacroix's unfinished 1838 painting of Chopin, compared to a photographic image of an unnamed person, recently discovered by Alain Kohler]

Delacroix’s 1849 pencil sketch of Chopin as Dante gives a slightly different representation of Chopin’s physical appearance, which may or may not be closer to reality (certainly this 1849 sketch held great significance to Delacroix, who kept the drawing in his bedroom for the remainder of his life, writing the words "Cher Chopin" beneath the image):

[Eugène Delacroix: drawing of Chopin as Dante c.31 October 1849, inscribed "Cher Chopin"]

Comparing the newly discovered image with the c.1847 L.A. Bisson daguerreotype image of Chopin, the following similarities stand out:
- both sitters appear to be wearing similar or identical collars and ties
- the hairstyle of both is almost identical, even down to a small curl on the bottom left of the image
- both sitters wear a slightly frowned expression, and with slightly hooded eyelids
- there is a similar wood trim detail in the background of both images

Given these similarities it’s easy to understand why some might be convinced the newly discovered image is a photographic portrait of Chopin, possibly taken by L.A. Bisson in the same session at his Paris studio at 65 rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois that produced the famous Chopin daguerreotype image. But to come to this conclusion one would have to ignore the differences in the physical features of the two sitters. It’s also important to bear in mind that in the L.A. Bisson daguerreotype image Chopin is looking at the camera face on, and so it isn’t possible to assess the true shape of his forehead or nose; without that information the newly discovered image does appear closer in likeness than it actually is.

So what could be the explanation for these similar details? Could this new image perhaps have been created as an “hommage” to Chopin, or perhaps even a deliberate attempt at forgery? I certainly believe it's possible, but I should point out that the Polish Institute's original press release stated that Alain Kohler and his team had examined this possibility and ruled it out, without providing specific details in the press release to substantiate their position. It seems less likely that the similarities are merely coincidences, since certain features of Chopin, such as his hairstyle, are fairly unique to him, so for now there are still many puzzles that have yet to be resolved.

Some other queries regarding the image also need to be addressed. The newly discovered picture appears to have been cropped, which is odd. If it has, what has become of the uncropped image and why would this have been done? Alain Kohler has raised this same concern himself. To date few details have been released regarding the current ownership of the image, the condition and age of the print (e.g. the kind of paper the image is printed on, any information written on the reverse side, etc.), the image's known history and how it came into its present ownership. It would be important to know if the image has ever previously been made public. With a lack of provenance all we are left with in assessing the picture’s authenticity is its appearance, which as I have outlined above, leaves a lot to be desired. In my opinion it is unfortunate that the Polish Institute in Paris issued their press release concerning the image before more efforts at verifying the image's authenticity had been made. In the rumour mill that is today’s internet a mere suggestion that the picture might be Chopin, and might have been taken by L.A. Bisson in 1847, is quickly transformed from suggestion to fact. All such statements regarding the history of the image are at this stage, pure conjecture. It is for this reason that I felt it important to issue my own statement on the image.

In conclusion, based on my own painstaking comparisons between the image discovered by Alain Kohler and announced to the world by the Polish Institute of Paris on 16 January 2017 and the known authentic images of the composer, there is little doubt in my mind that the newly discovered image is NOT an authentic photographic portrait of Chopin. Meanwhile I will eagerly await with great interest any new information that is released regarding the image, and how it came into existence.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A random collection of music for my birthday

In celebration of my birthday today here is a random collection of pieces I have written, chosen for no special reason, though it goes without saying that I am fond of all of them!

Cradle Song, Op.64

"Be still, my sweet sweeting, no longer do crye, Sing lullaby, lullaby, lullaby baby" are the opening words of the lullaby a nurse sings to the child in her care in John Phillip's 1566 play The Commodye of Pacient and Meeke Grissill. Phillip's play is based on the folklore of Grissill (or Griselda), in which a cruel husband tests the loyalty of his spouse with a series of dreadful scenarios. According to some scholars Phillip's 1566 play was possibly intended as a thinly disguised attack on the recently deceased tyrannical king Henry VIII, in order to help restore the reputation of the out of favour Anne Boleyn, mother of the newly crowned queen Elizabeth I — since her execution, Anne Boleyn had been a persona non grata in England. My setting of the nurse's cradle song was written in June 2005 and exists in three different versions: the original version for one voice, a duet arrangement for two sopranos (the version presented here, sung by Hillary Barlow and Danielle Riggins) and an arrangement for two soprano voices with added descant for children's choir. This video also features the poignant photographs of the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815 — 1879).

Siciliano, Op.70b

This work has great personal significance, composed on Christmas Eve of 2005. Five years later, on October 14 2010, just after I had begun my artist-in-residency at Davis & Elkins College in the beautiful Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, USA, flautist Elizabeth Brightbill and cellist Andrew Gabbert gave the first performance (at Davis & Elkins College) of a new arrangement I made for them of the piece. Here is a recording of their performance at the college (the video shows the wonderful fall foliage of that autumn, as viewed from the windows of one of the college buildings).

Sleep Not, Op.19

When I returned to composing at the end of 2000/beginning of 2001, after an absence of 25 years, I was particularly interested in writing songs, and was therefore constantly searching for words that inspired me. It wasn't long before I realised that Emily Brontë's poems gave me more inspiration than most writers, and in the first few months of 2001 I set four of her poems, including this one.

Emily's older sister Charlotte wrote in 1850 that Emily was "a solitude-loving raven, no gentle dove" in her appreciation of the wild beauty of Yorkshire's moors where they lived in northern England. She described how inconsolable Emily became when taken away from the moors to attend Roe Head School 18 miles away, where Charlotte taught (today Roe Head School is part of the Hollybank School for children with special needs):

"My sister Emily loved the moors. Flowers brighter than the rose bloomed in the blackest of the heath for her; out of a sullen hollow in a livid hill-side, her mind could make an Eden. She found in the bleak solitude many and dear delights; and not the least and best-loved was liberty. Liberty was the breath of Emily's nostrils; without it she perished. The change from her own home to a school, and from her own very noiseless, very secluded, but unrestricted and unartificial mode of life, to one of disciplined routine (though under the kindest auspices), was what she failed in enduring. Her nature proved here too strong for her fortitude. Every morning, when she woke, the vision of home and the moors rushed on her, and darkened and saddened the day that lay before her. Nobody knew what ailed her but me. I knew only too well. In this struggle her health was quickly broken: her white face, attenuated form, and failing strength, threatened rapid decline. I felt in my heart she would die, if she did not go home, and with this conviction obtained her recall. She had only been three months at school; and it was some years before the experiment of sending her from home was again ventured on."

In this video the soprano Ann Mackay sings Sleep Not, a live recording from a concert given in August 2003. The video also contains some rare images connected with the Brontës, including the earliest photographs taken of the parsonage in Haworth were the family lived. Sadly there are no photographs of Emily, Charlotte or Anne Brontë (to the best of our knowledge) though there are several photographic images of their father Patrick. The earliest known photograph connected with the Brontës appears to have been taken in January 1857, when John Stewart visited the parsonage and took several photographs for Elizabeth Gaskell's forthcoming book The Life of Charlotte Brontë, including one of the parsonage from the top of the church tower. At this point in time all Patrick Brontë's family (his wife and children) had died, though he himself was still living there when the pictures were taken. These early photographs show the bleakness of the setting, before there were any trees in the surrounding graveyard, and before the gable wing had been added on the side of the parsonage. From their front door the Brontës had immediate access to the wild moors which Emily adored.

The Bourne, Op.27

In March 1863 Macmillan's Magazine published a short poem by Christina Rossetti entitled The Bourne (originally part of a much longer twelve stanza poem written 9 years earlier, on 17 February 1854, entitled There remaineth therefore a rest). In June 2001 I set Rossetti's poignant words to music, and since then the song has had a small life of its own. It was first sung by Ann Mackay in England in July 2002, and by Charlene Aruta Taub in New York in August 2002. Since then it has been sung or recorded by a number of singers including Ann Mackay, Mary Plazas, Leona Mitchell, Christine Brewer, Suzanne Fleming-Atwood and others. The attached video includes a live recording of a performance given by Ann Mackay in August 2003, accompanied by the beautiful photographs of the northern English countryside taken by the blogger Heather of Uphilldowndale

O Magnum Mysterium, Op.105

The final offering in this birthday selection is one of my most recent compositions, a carol I wrote for the choir of Davis & Elkins College for their most recent Christmas carol service, composed in October and first performed on 6 December 2015. The video features a recording made at that carol service, with members of Davis & Elkins College choir, with myself playing the lovely Casavant Frères organ of Davis Memorial Church in Elkins, West Virginia.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A matinée musicale

There's nothing like the intimacy of live music-making in the company of a small group of friends, an environment that's so different to the formal atmosphere of public concerts (and more focused than the often distracted environment that comes with listening to recorded music). A few days ago, on a cold but bright February afternoon, I gave a private soirée at home in honour of a special birthday of one of our party. Coincidentally a day later, while reading some correspondence connected with Chopin, I came across a reference to a private soirée Chopin held at his apartment for a similarly small number of friends, likewise on a cold February afternoon (in 1844) at the very same time of day (4PM), to honour a member of his party. We know that Chopin preferred these intimate music-making occasions to more impersonal public concerts. Before the invention of recording devices live music-making was a common occurrence in the home, whether you were lucky enough to have Chopin himself playing for you, or perhaps just a gifted family member, as was the case in the Brontë family for example. Lacking the connections that would have attracted an artist of Chopin's calibre to their isolated Yorkshire parsonage, the Brontës instead made their own music at home. Emily Brontë in particular was said to be a gifted pianist who "played with precision and brilliancy when she did play — which was not often if others than the family circle were within hearing" (family friend Ellen Nussey recalled). Emily's music collections included pieces by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Schubert, Rossini, Mendelssohn and others, as well as the songs of Robert Burns. She was particularly fond of playing Beethoven, judging by the markings in her 8-volume collection The Musical Library (published by Charles Knight), which she purchased in 1844, the same year that Chopin held his February afternoon soirée. It's an intriguing thought to think of Emily Brontë, after walking for hours on the moors she loved so much with her beloved dog Keeper, in the evenings sitting at the piano playing through the well-thumbed pages of Beethoven's sonatas or the transcriptions from his Fourth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. She may not have been a Chopin, but ask yourself this: given the choice, would you rather play music from your electronic device, or hear Emily Brontë play something for you herself?

[Inside Chopin’s apartment at 9 Square d’Orléans, Paris. The picture on the wall, beyond the Pleyel grand piano, depicted the pyramids of Egypt, while the firescreen was a gift from one of his pupils. Also visible is a chaise longue on the right, where Chopin sometimes lay while giving his lessons, when not feeling well]

Below is a selection (with brief introductory notes) of recordings of some of the works I played at my February 7th matinée musicale, the full programme of which was as follows:

J.S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations
J.S. Bach: Gigue from French Suite no.5 in G major
J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in C# minor (Well-Tempered Clavier I)
Gibbons: Prelude in A flat, Op.37
Gibbons: Folk song, Op.99
Chopin: Etude in F minor (no.1 of Trois Nouvelle Etudes)
Chopin: Fantaisie-Impromptu
Chopin: Etude in E major, Op.10 no.3
Chopin: Polonaise in A flat, Op.53
Gibbons: Waltz for a musical box, Op.77
Gibbons: Melody in F sharp, Op.80
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): I Got Rhythm
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): Sweet and low down
Gershwin (transcribed Gibbons): Rhapsody in Blue

1. J.S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations

In 1722 Johann Sebastian Bach presented his new wife Anna Magdalena with a notebook of his own keyboard pieces, which Anna Magdalena titled on the front page "Clavier-Büchlein vor Anna Magdalena Bachin". The volume likely served as both an aid to Anna Magdalena's keyboard studies and an album of favourite pieces. The couple were married in December 1721; a few years later Bach described his growing family in a letter to his childhood friend George Erdmann, one of the few letters of a more personal nature written by Bach that has survived: "Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. I am married for the second time, my late wife having died in Cöthen. From the first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living, whom Your Honor will graciously remember having seen in Weimar. From the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living... The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form both a vocal and instrumental ensemble within my family, particularly since my present wife sings a good clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly" [letter from Johann Sebastian Bach to George Erdmann, 28 October 1730]. Elsewhere Anna Magdalena was described as "an outstanding soprano"; before her marriage she was employed as a singer at the court of Cöthen, and it's clear from the way she and her husband worked together that Johann Sebastian valued her musicianship highly. A second Anna Magdalena Notebook of musical pieces was started in 1725, most of the entries being added by Anna Magdalena herself, including items composed both by her husband and other composers, as well as pieces written by the Bach children. The album also includes a number of songs transposed to the soprano range, presumably which Anna Magdalena would have sung herself. In 1741, on two blank pages in the notebook, Anna Magdalena copied out the aria from her husband's Goldberg Variations. Clearly the theme must have been well loved, and no doubt would have been often played by Anna Magdalena herself, or perhaps their children. In the following video can be seen images of the Bachs' home in Leipzig (an apartment in the St. Thomas School, where Bach was employed) including Bach's Componir-Stube (composing room). Sadly the building was demolished in 1902, the photographs of the interior being taken shortly before the demolition. Other images seen in the video include Anna Magdalena's own handwritten copy of the Goldberg Variations aria, and a few short excerpts from the 1968 biographical movie "The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach", including a scene of Anna Magdalena with her beloved songbirds: in 1740, around the time Bach was working on his Goldberg Variations, the composer gave his wife a special gift of linnets, whose song must have become a regular accompaniment to all activities in the Bach home.

2. Gibbons: Prelude in A flat, Op.37

I began my own compositional efforts as a young child, one of my earliest pieces being a short Sonata written around the age of 9. By the time I was 14 I had a small collection of pieces to my credit including a concerto for piano and orchestra. However I then convinced myself (with all the self-consciousness of a teenager) that my creative efforts were in vain, destroyed many of these early pieces, and instead began concentrating fully on my ambition to become a concert pianist. Twenty-five years later, during an enforced break from performing while recovering from a very serious car accident, I finally had the opportunity to return to composing in a serious way and during the first year of this musical renaissance began writing many songs (settings of poems by Rossetti, Shelley, Brontë and others) before returning to the medium of solo piano. My short piano Prelude Op.37, composed in 2002, was a favourite of Edward Jablonski, the author and Gershwin biographer; the performance in this video was filmed at a special birthday concert held in his honour in New York in 2003.

3. Gibbons: Folk song, Op.99

My piano composition Folk song Op.99 was completed on 4 April 2014, and first performed five days later at a concert in Oxford, England. This video contains a recording of that performance, accompanied by a slide show of images of rural northern England, including the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, famous for its dry stone walls and undulating hills.

4. Chopin: Etude in F minor, no.1 of Trois nouvelles études

Chopin's "Trois nouvelles études" were written in 1839 as a contribution to the pedagogical volume Méthode des méthodes de piano, compiled by François-Joseph Fétis and Ignaz Moscheles. The publication, which appeared in Paris in 1840, with an English edition appearing in 1841 under the title The Complete System of Instruction, included instructional essays on the history and art of piano playing, as well as specially composed pieces by Heller, Mendelssohn, Henselt, Liszt, Moscheles, Thalberg, Chopin and others. The title page also boasted that the volume contained "works specially composed for the Piano Classes at the Brussels Conservatory and for the Schools of Music of Belgium by F. J. Fétis, Master of the Chapel of the King of Belgium and Director of the Brussels Conservatory of Music". One of the piano pupils at the Brussels Conservatory while Fétis was the director was none other than Emily Brontë, who during her brief 9 months in Brussels, in 1842, could well have heard Fétis conducting Beethoven symphonies at the conservatoire (she might even have heard Liszt and Berlioz, both of whom performed in Brussels while Emily and Charlotte Brontë were staying in the city!). In the first of the three studies he contributed to the Fétis Méthode des méthodes de piano Chopin chose to explore the rhythmical task of playing groups of fours (in the left hand) against groups of threes (in the right hand). Needless to say the end result is work of great beauty that far surpasses any dry technical exercise!

5. Chopin: Etude in E major, no.10 no.3

1832 was the year in which Victor Hugo set his famous novel Les Misérables. It was a pretty momentous year, not least from a musical point of view. Much of the action of Les Misérables is based on real events that Hugo witnessed himself in Paris, including the June revolution of June 5 and 6 1832. Though Hugo ennobled the actions of the students who tried, unsuccessfully, to start an uprising against the French king Louis-Phillipe, other contemporaries took a less favourable view of the rioters. Louis-Phillipe was more a constitutional monarch than a dictator: appointed by the elected government his powers were limited and his liberal leanings (influenced by his 3 year stay in the United States) had initially made him a popular figure, hence his nickname Citizen King. Nor did the rebelling students help their cause when they briefly kidnapped the American and French revolutionary hero Lafayette! Chopin's father took a dim view of the student riots when he wrote to his son on 28 June 1832: "I am glad to see from your letter of 6 June that you were lucky enough not to be involved in the riot which occurred and which was instigated by rascals. Some papers say that Poles took part and thus abused the hospitality they enjoy: have they not had their fill of such nonsense? They have caused enough trouble here. I am sure their numbers were small, for who would be so mad as to share their destructive ideas?". Chopin had only been living in the city for a few months. Having arrived late in 1831 he gave his Paris debut on 25 February 1832 at the Salle Pleyel. A few months later he wrote one his most famous melodies, the manuscript of his Etude in E major, Op.10 no.3 being dated 25 August 1832. If reports are true of Chopin's emotional reaction after hearing his pupil Adolphe Gutmann play the work during a lesson, it was a piece filled with nostalgia for his distant homeland of Poland.

6. Chopin: Polonaise in A flat, Op.53

The polonaise is a stately processional dance from Poland, made famous by Chopin's extraordinary compositions. One of Chopin's finest examples of the form is this, his passionate Polonaise in A flat, Op.53. The work was composed in 1842, and is often referred to as the Heroic, though not by Chopin, who strongly disliked descriptive or emotive titles. Though there is no speed indication or metronome mark on the work, only the description maestoso (majestically), we know that Chopin hated the piece to be played too fast. His pupil Charles Hallé (later founder of the Hallé Orchestra) wrote in his autobiography: "Any deliberate misreading of his compositions he resented sharply. I remember how, on one occasion, in his gentle way he laid his hand upon my shoulder, saying how unhappy he felt, because he had heard his 'Grande Polonaise', in A flat, jouée vite [played fast], thereby destroying all the grandeur, the majesty, of this noble inspiration". To avoid playing polonaises too fast Chopin suggested to his pupils that they should be able to count out 6 beats in every bar, even though the tempo marking is 3 beats to the bar. It's likely that it was the Polonaise in A flat that Chopin performed at the February 1844 soirée mentioned at the beginning of this blog. The Polish poet Zaleski, in whose honour Chopin gave the soirée, wrote in his diary for 2 February 1844: "It was snowing - just like one of our winter days [in Poland]. At 4PM I went to Chopin's [at 9 Square d'Orleans], where I found Witwicki … Chopin entered unexpectedly, pale, tired, but in good spirits and in an inspired mood. He greeted me affectionately and sat down at the piano. It's impossible to describe the form and subject of his playing. For the first time in my life the beauty of the music moved me so vividly that I could not hold back my tears. All the nuances, all the musician's emotions, I could grasp, and I remember in the most exact way the motives and the feelings I had while listening to each piece. First he played a magnificent Prelude, then the Berceuse, then a Mazurka, again the Berceuse — of which Mme Hoffman [one of the other guests] said that the angels in Bethlehem must have sung like that. There followed a splendid Polonaise, and finally, in my honour, an improvisation in which he evoked all the sweet and sorrowful voices of the past. Chopin sang the tears of the dumkas and finished with the national anthem, 'Poland is not dead', in a whole gamut of different forms and voices, from that of the warrior to those of children and angels."

7. Gibbons: Waltz for a musical box, Op.77

On 11 December 2007 I wrote my Waltz for a Musical Box Op.77. Two weeks later I played it for the first time to a group of friends at an intimate New Year's Eve gathering. Here is a video of that first private performance.

8. Gibbons: Melody in F sharp, Op.80

My Melody in F sharp Op.80 was composed on 12 January 2008. The video below is of the performance I gave two months later, in March 2008, at a special memorial concert for my childhood piano teacher, Elizabeth Brazell, who tragically had died the previous summer, at the age of 63. When I was around 12 years old Elizabeth Brazell mentioned at the end of one lesson that I seemed to enjoy performing and "rising to the occasion" and perhaps I should consider becoming a concert pianist. Needless to say I was immensely thrilled by the confidence she placed in me; in fact I was so excited that I remember skipping all the way home after the lesson singing to myself over and over again "I'm going to be a concert pianist...". Many years later, as I was about to walk out onto the stage to make my Lincoln Center debut in New York, I suddenly thought of that scene, of 12-year-old me skipping home from my lesson in such excitement. Dedicating my Melody in F sharp to the memory of my early, and much missed, teacher is the very least I can do to honour her.

9. Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Sweet and low down

The piano was at the centre of George Gershwin’s musical life, and he never tired of performing, whether to an audience of one or thousands. According to the film director Rouben Mamoulian, who also directed the premiere production of Porgy & Bess, “George loved playing the piano for people and would do so at the slightest provocation... I am sure that most of his friends, in thinking of George at his best, think of him at the piano. I’ve heard many pianists and composers play for informal gatherings, but I know of no one who did it with such genuine delight and verve. George at the piano was George happy.” Gershwin loved creating elaborate improvisations on his songs, and during the 1920s he recorded a number of these song variations on 78 discs. Beginning in the late 1980s I began reconstructing Gershwin's recorded improvisations, note-for-note, from his 78 discs, recorded radio broadcasts, and piano-rolls. What began as a fun project soon changed the direction of my career as I embarked on an annual series of Gershwin concerts at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, along with a series of recordings entitled The authentic George Gershwin. At the same time I was invited to the United States for the first time, to meet Gershwin's sister Frankie and eventually to make my US debut as a pianist. Now based in the United States, 25 years after my first visit to the country, it would not be an overstatement to say that Gershwin's music has "changed my life". Sweet and low down was the first song improvisation of Gershwin's that I transcribed, and the performance on this video comes from my studio recording made in 1992 (the video also features rare footage of Gershwin himself, courtesy of Edward Jablonski).

10. Gershwin transcribed Gibbons: Rhapsody in Blue

The final item in this matinée musicale selection, and the music with which I concluded my intimate soirée a few days ago, is Gershwin's concert work Rhapsody in Blue (in my transcription based on the composer's own 1925 piano-roll recording). Gershwin once said “I'd like my music to keep people - all kinds of people - awake when they should be sleeping. I'd like my compositions to be so vital that I'd be required by law to dispense sedatives with each score sold”. The vitality of Gershwin’s music is one of it’s greatest hallmarks. S.N. Behrman put it perfectly when he wrote, in his ‘People in a Diary’: “I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor - above all, the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it.” When the guest of honour at our birthday soirée was asked if he had a special wish for his 80th birthday, he answered without hesitation: "to live for ever". Here's to Gershwin's oxygenated vitality making that wish come true for all of us!

Friday, January 29, 2016

On the ancient art of consolation

The poets of ancient Greece loved to remind everyone of the levelling effect of death, "the sleep that is due to all" (Callimachus), the destiny that "no man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun" (Homer's Iliad), "let him remember that the limbs he clothes are mortal and that in the end he will put on a garment of earth" (Pindar). In a world of so many unknowns death was a stark certainty. Nor did the poets hold back in expressing their grief at such an unwelcome visitor:

So he spoke, and a black cloud of grief covered Achilles;
with both hands he gathered up the sooty dust and
poured it over his head, disfiguring his handsome face,
and the black ashes settled all over his fragrant tunic.
Mightily in his might, he lay stretched out in the dust,
and with his own hands tore and disfigured his hair.
The maidservants captured by Achilles and Patroclus
cried aloud in agony of heart and all rushed out of doors
to stand around war-minded Achilles, and with their hands
they beat their breasts, and each one’s limbs were loosened.
On his other side Antilochus grieved, weeping tears and
holding Achilles’ hands and groaning in his noble heart,
terrified that he might cut his throat with the iron.
Achilles gave a terrible cry, and his revered mother heard him,
sitting in the depths of the salt sea near her father the ancient,
and in turn screamed in grief, and the goddesses gathered round,
all the daughters of Nereus who lived in the deeps of the sea
[from Homer's Iliad, translated Anthony Verity]

In actual fact, in the mid 6th century BCE, Solon, chief magistrate of Athens, was concerned enough about uncontrolled expressions of grief that he introduced regulations to restrict mourning practices he felt were getting out of hand: "Laceration of the flesh by mourners, and the use of set lamentations, and the bewailing of any one at the funeral ceremonies of another, he forbade" [Plutarch, Life of Solon].

[Terracotta funeral plaque from Attica, c.520-510 BCE (courtesy Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York). Possibly used as a tomb decoration the plaque shows mourners gathered around the deceased, crying lamentations and tearing their hair out. The chariot race below is also highly symbolic, evoking the funeral games that honoured departed heroes (as depicted in Homer's Iliad).]

With the rise of the Stoic philosophies of the 3rd century BCE self-control came to be seen as an asset in Greek, and later in Roman, culture. Consolatory orations became popular to ease bereavement. By the time of Cicero, in 1st century BCE Rome, the consolatio had become almost a form of medication for the treatment of grief (Cicero even wrote his own consolatio in the hope that it would quell his own grief following the death of his beloved daughter).

Regarded as a gift from the gods, music held a preeminent position in ancient Greek culture and naturally was called into service to provide lamentations and comfort at funerals. According to Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, "the Pythagoreans used medicine to purify the body and music to purify the soul".

[A drawing on a drinking vessel from 480-470 BCE, found in a Delphi tomb (courtesy Delphi Archaeological Museum). The image shows Apollo (a god of music), wearing a laurel or myrtle wreath, holding a tortoise-shell lyre in his left hand, while pouring a libation with his right hand. The crow facing him possibly represents Coronis, one of Apollo's lovers (the word Coronis translates as crow or raven).]

Plutarch described how "during the early period the aulos [a reeded wind instrument] was drawn to mournings and performed on these occasions a public service — though neither a highly prized nor cheerful one". Sextus Empiricus, in the 2nd century CE, wrote "in general, music is heard not only from people who are rejoicing, but also in hymns, feasts, and sacrifices to the gods. Because of this, it turns the heart toward the desire for good things. But it is also a consolation to those who are grief-stricken; for this reason, the auloi playing a melody for those who are mourning are the lighteners of their grief".

[Images on an oval ceramic container from Greece, 460-450 BCE (courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The illustrations possibly depict the poet Archilochus being called to his art by the Muses, one of whom can be seen here playing a double aulos (a reeded wind instrument).]

The Roman philosopher Boethius, born in the year that the Roman Empire finally collapsed (480 CE), was concerned that important aspects of Greek and Roman culture might be lost to future generations (which of course they were for several hundred years); in his De Institutione Musica Boethius wrote "why is it that those mourning in tears express their lamentation through music?... Nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites... there is no age at all that is not delighted by sweet song. Thus we can begin to understand that apt doctrine of Plato which holds that the soul of the universe is united by a musical concord. And someone who cannot sing particularly well will nevertheless sing to himself, not because it is pleasant for him to hear what he sings but because it is a delight to express certain inward pleasures which originate in the soul, regardless of the manner in which they are expressed... It appears beyond doubt that music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired."

Plato did indeed place music very highly in the overall scheme of things: "Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful" [Plato, De Republica, c.380 BCE]. These words were echoed 300 years later when Cicero wrote (in his Tusculanae Disputationes of c.45 BCE): "Honour nourishes art, and glory is the spur with all to studies; while those studies are always neglected in every nation which are looked upon disparagingly. The Greeks held skill in vocal and instrumental music as a very important accomplishment, and therefore it is recorded of Epaminondas [4th century BCE Theban statesman], who, in my opinion, was the greatest man among the Greeks, that he played excellently on the flute; and Themistocles [5th century Athenian statesman], some years before, was deemed ignorant because at an entertainment he declined the lyre when it was offered to him. For this reason musicians flourished in Greece; music was a general study; and whoever was unacquainted with it was not considered as fully instructed in learning."

In another example of the extraordinary power that the ancient philosophers felt was vested in music Cicero, in his De Re Publica, creates an imaginary scene involving the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus dreaming that he can hear the music of the spheres (Pythagorus's music of the spheres theory was based on the idea that the movement of celestial bodies created an imperceptible sound measurable by mathematical formulae):

As I looked at these things I was dumbfounded but when I recovered myself I asked: "What is this great and so alluring sound which fills my ears?" He replied: "It is the sound which is produced by the motion of the spheres themselves. They are separated by unequal intervals but they are arranged in an exact proportion and the treble is moderated by the bass to produce variable sounds equally. Movements cannot be performed in silence and nature brings it about that at one end of the universe they sound in the treble, at the other end in the bass. As a result the highest star-bearing circuit of Heaven whose movement is swifter moved with a treble, lively sound, the lowest, that is the lunar circuit, with the deepest bass... Learned men have imitated it on strings and in songs and thereby have opened a passage-way for their return to this place like those others who devoted during their human lives themselves and their intellectual genius to the study of the divine."
[from Cicero's Somnium Scipionis translated by Niall McCloskey]

[Marble statue of Atlas holding the celestial sphere, 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 2nd century BCE Greek sculpture (courtesy Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli). This is believed to be the oldest existing statue depicting the Greek god Atlas and the oldest representation of the celestial sphere (to which Pythagoras refers in his music of the spheres theory). It is believed that the statue's celestial sphere was based on the star catalogue or celestial globe of the Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus, completed c.129 BCE, showing the constellations.]

Cicero's Dream of Scipio even inspired a 15-year-old Mozart to write a mini opera, Il sogno di Scipione, K.126.

[Painting of 14-year-old Mozart by Saverio Dalla Rosa (private collection). The painting was created about a year before Mozart composed his mini opera Il sogno di Scipione, based on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis.]

Though most of the music of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome has not survived (since the notating of music was still very much in its infancy), literary examples of consolation from the same period have survived. The consolatio orations of ancient Rome usually had a clearly defined form: according to Menander Rhetor (a 3rd century CE rhetorician) a typical consolation of the period might consist of several parts, portraying very different emotions, such as praise (laudatio) and lamentation (lamentatio) as well as consolation (consolatio) — the overall context being important to the effectiveness of the consoling: "Having ampified the lamentation as far as possible, the speaker should approach the second part of his speech, which is the consolatory part". Sadly Cicero's consolatio, written for his own bereavement, has not survived, but we can get a sense of Cicero's struggles with his sorrow from his personal correspondence. Here is a note of consolation offered to Cicero by his friend the legal scholar Servius Sulpicius Rufus, followed by Cicero's response:

When I received the news of your daughter Tullia’s death, I was indeed much grieved and distressed as I was bound to be, and looked upon it as a calamity in which I shared. For, if I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow. They cannot attempt it without many tears, so that they seem to require consolation themselves rather than to be able to afford it to others....
[letter from Servius Sulpicius to Cicero, March, 45 BCE]

Yes, indeed, my dear Servius, I would have wished — as you say — that you had been by my side at the time of my grievous loss. How much help your presence might have given me, both by consolation and by your taking an almost equal share in my sorrow, I can easily gather from the fact that after reading your letter I experienced a great feeling of relief. For not only was what you wrote calculated to soothe a mourner, but in offering me consolation you manifested no slight sorrow of heart yourself.
[letter from Cicero to Servius Sulpicius, April, 45 BCE]

[Marble bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE - 43 BCE), philosopher, lawyer, writer and politician, 1st century CE (courtesy of Museo Capitolino, Rome)]

Cicero describes his grief in even more personal terms in his letters to his close friend Titus Pomponius Atticus:

You are as kind as usual in wishing that I could get some relief from my grief; but you can bear witness that it is no fault of mine. For every word that has been written by anyone on the subject of assuaging grief I read at your house. But my sorrow is beyond any consolation. Why, I have done what no one has ever done before, tried to console myself by writing a book. I will send it to you as soon as it is copied out. I assure you no other consolation equals it. I write the whole day long, not that it does any good, but it acts as a temporary check: not very much of that, for the violence of my grief is too strong; but still I get some relief and try with all my might to attain some composure of countenance, if not of mind. In so doing sometimes I think I am doing wrong, and sometimes that I should be doing wrong if I were not to do it. Solitude helps a little, but it would have much more effect if you at any rate could be with me... However even the idea of seeing you upsets me: for now you can never feel the same towards me. I have lost all you used to love.
[letter from Cicero to Atticus, 8 March, 45 BCE]

In this solitude I don't speak to a soul. In the morning I hide myself in a dense and wild wood, and I don't come out till the evening. After you I have not a greater friend than solitude. In it my only converse is with books, though tears interrupt it. I fight against them as much as I can: but as yet I am not equal to the struggle.
[letter from Cicero to Atticus, 9 March, 45 BCE]

I have lost the one thing that bound me to life. Accordingly, I seek solitude
[Cicero to Atticus, 19 March, 45 BCE]

* * * * *

In a modern equivalent of Cicero's personal 'consolatio’, the writer C.S. Lewis wrote a deeply moving account of his own grief in the hope it would help him in his loss following the death of his wife Joy Davidman in 1960. Eventually published as "A Grief Observed", but under a false name, N.W. Clerk, the book was then recommended to C.S. Lewis by his concerned friends, who were unaware it was Lewis's own work. In this extract C.S. Lewis describes the fear that he might eventually replace the memory of his wife with his own version of her (Lewis uses H. in place of his wife's name):

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes — like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night — little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes — ten seconds — of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

[C.S. Lewis with his wife Joy, photographed at their Oxford home, The Kilns.]

* * * * *

At his residences at Tusculum, Antium, and on the Palatine in Rome, Cicero had extensive libraries of literature — when his library in Antium was being restored, in June 56 BCE, Cicero wrote to Atticus: "Tyrannio has made a wonderful job of arranging my books... Now that Tyrannio has put my books straight, my house seems to have woken to life". Cicero’s libraries were well stocked with the works of his favourite Greek writers. And just as we today might look back 400 years to the glorious era of Shakespearian England, so too would Cicero have looked back 400 years, to the glorious days of Classical Greece and the era of Aeschylus, Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides, Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero's beloved Plato and so many others earlier and later (Homer was as far removed in time from Cicero as Chaucer is from us today!). Today we have all the benefits of modern technology, not only printed books but now digitalized libraries on the internet from where we can access all this material at the touch of a screen. The complete surviving works of Cicero are freely available on the internet for all to read and enjoy. Cicero’s influence on history is of course immeasurable: he has been credited with introducing western Europe to Greek philosophy, being the main inspiration behind the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the birth of the United States, and the French Revolution! Yet spare a thought for those who helped to create Cicero’s libraries: every single parchment scroll would had to have been laboriously written out by hand.

As well being an admirer of the ancient Greek poets and philosophers, Cicero also had an appreciation of the art of Classical Greece, his homes were enthusiastically decorated with artifacts and pieces of sculpture, and in his writings he mentions the “admirable sculptures” of Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Scopas and others, and the paintings of Apelles, Zeuxis, Parrhasius and many others.

Despite the fact that music was more highly esteemed in Greek culture than any of the arts, Cicero never mentions any specific musicians (apart from a couple of poets who also wrote songs) though he refers to music often in his writings. The inability to record music for posterity prevented individual composers (who did exist in ancient Greece and Rome) from becoming as well known as their painter and sculptor colleagues, and most of the music particularly as far back as Classical and Archaic Greece can now only be reconstructed using careful scholarship and a fair amount of guess work, with varying degrees of success.

[Fresco wall painting from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor Boscoreale (nr Pompeii), c.50-40 BCE (courtesy Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York). Cicero valued music, and possibly kept slave musicians to provide music for his Rome households. In his famous defense speech Pro Roscio Amerino from 80 BCE, Cicero writes of the defendant Sextus Roscius: "he has so many slaves to gratify his mind and ears, that the whole neighbourhood resounds with the daily music of voices, and stringed instruments, and flutes".]

It's a mind-boggling thought to imagine how the odes of Pindar must have sounded when they were first performed (Pindar wrote them to be sung by a "sweet-singing band of revellers" as he put it). Pindar's odes were commissioned to celebrate the victories of athletes at the various games of ancient Greece, and one in particular has become very well known, the 8th Pythian ode, written to celebrate the victory of the wrestling athlete Aristomenes in the Pythian games of 446 BCE. In addition to praising his athlete, and weaving in heroic legends, Pindar makes several references to the ephemeral nature of mankind, the need for the athlete to step up and earn his place in destiny, and the importance of good fortune. The line "man is the dream of a shadow" was well known enough in 1547 to be quoted by a 14-year-old English princess, later Queen Elizabeth I, writing to her 9-year-old half-brother Edward VI, as she consoled him following his recovery from illness by reminding him of the frailty of human existence.

[Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) painted in c.1546/7 possibly by William Scrots (courtesy Royal Collection Trust). The painting, first recorded in a 1547 inventory as "the picture of the Ladye Elizabeth her grace with a booke in her hande her gowne like crymsen clothe", would have been created shortly before Elizabeth sent her 9-year-old half-brother Edward VI the letter quoting Pindar.]

ἐν δ᾽ ὀλίγῳ βροτῶν
τὸ τερπνὸν αὔξεται: οὕτω δὲ καὶ πίτνει χαμαί,
ἀποτρόπῳ γνώμᾳ σεσεισμένον.
ἐπάμεροι: τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος. ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν αἴγλα διόσδοτος ἔλθῃ,
λαμπρὸν φέγγος ἔπεστιν ἀνδρῶν καὶ μείλιχος αἰών

Men's pleasure swells in a brief space of time,
and likewise falls to the ground,
shaken by an adverse judgement.
Creatures of a day. What is man? What is he not?
He is the dream of a shadow.
Yet when Zeus-sent brightness comes
a brilliant light shines on mankind and their life is serene

[from Pindar’s Pythian 8, translated by Anthony Verity]

[Discobolus (Discus Thrower). 1st century CE copy of c. 460-450 BCE original by Myron (courtesy Museo Nazionale Romano).]

The American classics scholar Gregory Nagy offers a rather different interpretation of "man is the dream of a shadow" to the one the young princess Elizabeth offered her brother. In his book Pindar's Homer Nagy suggests that these words present an interconnection of the past, present and future: to Pindar the word "shadow" most likely would have meant the spirit of ancestors (the "shades" that occupy Hades) and the "dream" is possibly a vision, already alluded to earlier in the ode, presaging future victories, "as if we the living were the realization of the dreams dreamt by our dead ancestors". To illustrate the point Gregory Nagy quotes a passage from Walt Whitman's poignant 1856 poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried...

I too many and many a time crossed the river of old...

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born...

Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

[Left: Walt Whitman photographed in 1891 by Thomas Eakins.
Right: Fulton Ferry Boat (Brooklyn, New York), July 1890]

* * * * *

Cicero offered a similar sentiment to Pindar when, in February 43 BCE, he requested a lasting memorial for his old school friend Servius Sulpicius Rufus (the same man who, two years earlier, had so kindly offered Cicero consolation on the death of his daughter):

Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum
[For the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living]

[Jack Gibbons performing his Consolation, Op.88, composed February 2011 (informal video courtesy Kyle Dillingham, filmed Oklahoma City, February 17 2011)].

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Britain’s forgotten genius

Thanks to pressure from Edward Elgar the Three Choirs Festival of Britain offered Samuel Coleridge-Taylor his first commission in 1898, launching his career. The work produced by the 19-year-old in response to this opportunity was his Ballade for orchestra Op.33. It’s a youthful work, full of wonderful high-spirits, passion and warmth, and with tenderness and pathos too. Above all, the expression is genuine and the work is a harbinger of what might come, given time and opportunity. Prior to its first performance, following a rehearsal of the work in London’s Queen’s Hall on a very hot summer afternoon in 1898, with the composer himself conducting, Coleridge-Taylor was surprised and delighted when following sustained applause from the orchestral players he noticed two gentlemen coming forward to offer him a warm handshake for his achievement. They were Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir Hubert Parry (at the time two of England’s most well known composers).

That same year, 1898, Coleridge-Taylor would write Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast, his most popular work, sealing his future. But today his legacy is still undefined, partly because the successful trilogy of Hiawatha cantatas has overshadowed the rest of his large output, and partly because his tragically early death robbed the music world of a still developing talent. Most importantly the seriousness of his musical expression seems to have been overshadowed by the exaggerated success of Hiawatha as an entertainment piece on the one hand, and the popularity of some of his lighter works on the other. Coleridge-Taylor is a composer in the tradition of Dvořák and Elgar, and his music is sincere and deeply emotional (and not as sentimental as it is sometimes played). The composer’s ‘ideal’ is as far removed as it is possible to get from the contemporary musical trends that were sweeping Europe in France (Debussy) and Germany (Schoenberg) as well as America (ragtime and early jazz) at the beginning of the 20th century. In his lifetime Coleridge-Taylor survived (and even triumphed against) the huge obstacle of being the only black classical composer in a white man's world. Today his legacy faces another massive challenge, this time for ‘idealistic’ reasons, because his music is not (by some critics) seen as fitting in to the expected pigeon holes of early 20th century composition. Coleridge-Taylor was brought up in the European tradition of classical symphonic form as represented by Schumann and Brahms, a great tradition in which he felt completely at home and fully able to express himself. Later in life he began to express a stronger desire to develop the African side of his heritage in his music (hoping to mirror Dvořák's interest in his Bohemian roots, or Grieg’s interest in Nordic culture) but it was still within the framework of his European upbringing. His published letters and essays on music demonstrate his profound thoughts on the state of music in the world, and confirm his idealistic musical approach:

"...few recent compositions really move one - though many of them astonish. It seems as if the composers would wish to be classed with the flying man in his endeavours to 'go one better' than the last, somehow or other, and in many ways much of the music of the period reminds one of the automobile and the airship. It is daring, clever, complex, and utterly mechanical. The question is: should an imaginative Art follow such lines? Should it not rather come from the heart as well as the brain? Of course, a fine technical equipment is a very desirable thing, and nothing of worth can be accomplished without it; but should 'What do you think of my cleverness?' be stamped so aggressively over nearly every score that we hear? The lack of human passion in English music may be (personally I think IS) merely transitory. It is being pushed aside only while the big technical Dreadnought is in its most engrossing stage of development. Soon the builders will have the time to love again - when the turmoil is hushed somewhat - to give the world a few tender and personal touches amidst the strife, which will 'make us feel again also.' "

[Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: "Is Technique Strangling Beauty"
published in the magazine 'The Etude', January, 1911]

Those words have even more meaning today than when they were written 100 years ago. What on earth would Coleridge-Taylor make of Stockhausen, Boulez, and others (talk about 'What do you think of my cleverness?'). Sadly Coleridge-Taylor's admirable optimism turned out to be misplaced.

Coleridge-Taylor’s early death at 37 has left the music world today unsure of how to estimate his talent. Do we judge it for what it was, or what it promised? And it promised a great deal. I am of the strong opinion that we have been robbed of a truly great composer by his early death (had Elgar died at the same age he would have been but a foot note in musical history). Listening to the early Ballade Op.33 it is not an exaggeration to say 19-year-old Coleridge-Taylor was showing more promise than Elgar at the same age (no wonder Elgar was so excited by Coleridge-Taylor's talent). It's also worth remembering, when Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade sounds 'Elgarian' in places, that Elgar had yet to fully develop his own style (having not yet penned the work that would put him on the musical map, the Enigma Variations, let alone works such as his Symphonies and Concertos).

Coleridge-Taylor once said “I want to be nothing in the world except what I am – a musician”. Nevertheless it's impossible to ignore the aspect of his race given the climate of the times he grew up in. Fortunately he encountered few obstacles in his career in England, where the establishment was by and large on his side and within his lifetime he achieved considerable fame and adulation. Of course it would have been a very different story in the United States, and his three visits to the US (in 1904, 1906 and 1910) helped to politicize him, as he witnessed the horrors of institutionalized racism first hand. Before visiting America for the first time in 1904 Coleridge-Taylor had prepared himself for the prejudice he expected to encounter, while at the same time telling his American hosts (the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Society, an all black choir founded in his honour) that if they could endure these things, so could he. But he insisted there should be an orchestra available for all his US concerts, which by necessity meant he would be conducting white musicians (something that had never been a problem in England, but in the States it was a different matter). When it came down to it only two white Americans walked out on him, letting it be known that it was beneath them to be conducted by a black man! Other examples of racism were encountered, such as the refusal of the New York printer to put his name in the programmes once it was discovered that Coleridge-Taylor was black! But none of this prevented the tour from being anything but a great success, and Coleridge-Taylor was feted by both black and white Americans, was treated as a star wherever he went and hailed as the 'black Mahler', was even invited to the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt (who made a good impression on him in his attitude to race) and most importantly, he was embraced by the black community in America as a hero to be placed alongside Frederick Douglass. But Coleridge-Taylor was still shocked by what he saw in the States, particularly some of the conditions endured by black Americans (he describes in his letters the segregation south of Washington, the way people are thrown out of railway carriages, etc.). As a musician Coleridge-Taylor may have had his head in the clouds, but as a person of mixed race living in a predominately white environment he was not under any illusions politically, nor was he anything but proud of his African heritage, and happily joined forces with the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois (author of 'The Souls of Black Folk', a book Coleridge-Taylor devoured as soon as it was published in 1904) and the black American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar who he had met in London in 1896. Coleridge-Taylor played an active role in the Pan African conference in London in 1900 (a conference aimed at demonstrating to European governments the evil of colonization and racism in Africa and the West Indies, promoting the cause of self-government in the colonies, and demanding political and civil rights for African Americans). Coleridge-Taylor was an avid reader, but away from politics he would much rather spend his time reading poetry, about which he was extremely knowledgeable. He also had a tremendous passion for the countryside and wildlife, and whenever he could he would take advantage of the beautiful country walks around where he lived south of London (it wasn't built up in those days and must have been exquisite). As with many composers his long walks seemed to help him find musical ideas. He would also write down (in his music note books) particular bird songs that fascinated him. It goes without saying that he was a devout family man, and many people commented on the particularly close relationship he enjoyed with his daughter Gwendolen [the video at the foot of this blog contains many beautiful photographs of his family].

It would be naïve to assume from all the above that all was idyllic in England and that Coleridge-Taylor didn't encounter racism in his native country; he did, and stories from his daughter make painful and distressing reading today. Most distressing for him was the fact that his (Caucasian) wife Jessie was also a target of abuse. Jessie was the love of his life, he having courted her against mild opposition from her family, finally winning her parents over and receiving their blessing for the union (they married in 1899). But daily life still contained many trials, even with his increasing success. His daughter Gwen records his response to the groups of local youths who would repeatedly shower him with insulting comments about the colour of his skin: “When he saw them approaching along the street he held my hand more tightly, gripping it until it almost hurt".

All that I have read about Coleridge-Taylor shows that not only was he a remarkable musician, he was also a remarkable human being, with not an ounce of malice or hatred to those who abused him. Perhaps if he had lived longer he would have become more active in politics and civil rights. He tended to be shy in character, but he was confident of his musical abilities and he lived more than anything else for his music. Coleridge-Taylor had been a workaholic all his life, his wife saying that he couldn't bear inactivity. The thought of leaving this world while still so young was clearly a huge torment for him (judging from the desperate comments he said to Jessie in the last bed-ridden days of his life) not because of a fear of death, but because of the awareness that he still had so much to say. On the day he died, September 1st 1912, he insisted on looking through his recently completed Violin Concerto, checking the parts and trying to conduct portions of the piece before he finally collapsed. It's a sobering tale today, when so many people sit out half their lives in passive gaze at a television screen.

In the end Coleridge-Taylor's talents transcend both race and epoch: it's time that musicians looked anew at his familiar name and delved a little further beneath the surface of his music, and away from the 'light music' image that has unfairly dogged him for years. His reputation is beginning to grow again, particularly in the United States where the colour of his skin is now an inspiration to a whole new generation of musicians. But when all is said and done, in the words of Coleridge-Taylor scholar Dr Catherine Carr, "the significance of his worth as a composer was over and above such elements as colour, race, gender etc.”.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Ballade for orchestra Op.33 (1898)
played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
conducted by Grant Llewellyn

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

An English composer who burned out too soon...

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was one of England's most promising composers. Born in London in 1875 his remarkable musical talent emerged very quickly, the violin becoming his main instrument as a child. While a student at the Royal College of Music in London he began composing works that to this day are regarded as beautiful and skillful compositions. Having already caught the attention of composers such as Sullivan and Stanford his big break came when the composer Elgar began supporting his talent, convincing the Three Choirs Festival to commission the young composer. Coleridge-Taylor went on to achieve enormous popularity in the UK for his series of 3 cantatas, 'The Song of Hiawatha' (a setting of Longfellow's poem) while at the same time writing music for the concert hall and theater, and becoming a professor of composition at London's Trinity College of Music and Guildhall School of Music.

Yet he never had the chance to fully develop his remarkable talent. He died tragically young from pneumonia complicated by exhaustion from overwork, at the age of just 37. In the last months of his life he had completed a violin concerto which he never lived to hear, and which showed a new maturity and sense of expression in his style which was never fulfilled. His early death was a huge loss to the musical life of Great Britain, and a potentially important voice had been silenced at a crucial time in classical music as the philosophy of Schoenbergian theory, which would eventually destroy the careers of many composers with outlooks similar to Coleridge-Taylor's, was beginning to emerge.

Despite Coleridge-Taylor's enormous popularity in Britain (for many years hardly a school or college missed the opportunity of performing his Song of Hiawatha) his talent is still undervalued today, with many of his works still awaiting their first recordings. Coleridge-Taylor himself made very little money from his success, having sold the royalty of his Hiawatha trilogy to his publishers for a small one-off payment. The circumstances of his death, leaving behind an impoverished family (for whom King George V took the unusual step of awarding an annual pension) contributed greatly to the subsequent adoption of a system of royalties for composers in the UK.

A short tribute to the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) with contributions from his daughter, Avril Coleridge-Taylor (recorded in 1974), and excerpts from Hiawatha's Wedding-Feast, The Death of Minnehaha and the Violin Concerto, Op.80.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Brain food

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart was born this day, 27 January, 257 years ago. His incomparable music continues to inspire long after his short (and largely unappreciated) life ended.

Just over 231 years ago Mozart and Josepha von Auernhammer gave the first performance of Mozart's Sonata for 2 pianos K.448 in Vienna. In 1993 two less intelligent people at the University of California conducted an experiment that concluded that listening to this piece for 10 minutes was better for the brain than listening to a piece of rubbish, or nothing, for 10 minutes - duh! (and so began the craze for making babies listen to Mozart!). So go ahead, listen, and improve your IQ right now. And read on for a little bit more fun...

[Mozart Sonata for two pianos K.448 (1st movement
played by Vladimir Ashkenazy and Malcolm Frager,
written and first performed in 1781 (1964 recording)]

... below is Mozart's highly unflattering portrait of Josepha von Auernhammer (who apparently had a huge crush on the 25 year old Mozart):

22 August, 1781
Dear Friend
You may be surprised to know that I am getting married! Well let me tell you - when I walk down the street and hear this news - so am I! It seems that once again gossip is spreading across town. This time that I am to be married to one of my pupils - do you recall my student Fraulein Auernhammer? - and everywhere people are asking why would he take someone with a face like hers? Truly this is no idle comment... Michelangelo himself would have used her face as a model to portray the visage of hell in his Last Judgement! She is as fat as a farm pig and perspires so readily that it makes one quite sick to think about. To make matters worse, she dresses so scantily as to say plainly "look right here". True, there is plenty to see - but who would want to look! The sight is enough to strike one blind! One is truly punished if they let their eye wander! Let me assure you that there is no truth in the rumour - though it seems that the poor girl has fallen in love, longing, lust with me, and impresses herself on me at every occasion in an attempt to be attractive! She hogs my day and makes me squeeze next to her at the piano going over some tedious fingering. When I confronted her about these rumours she denied it with a laugh - but I know for a fact that she herself is responsible for spreading them. And I have it from a reliable source that she has even embellished our post wedding plans!!!!! Eventually I got mad at her and thus had to endure her tender reproaches. What is a poor composer to do? Though she has much promise as a pianist I will not be taken advantage of and I have resolved to see her less and less - so hopefully this thing will eventually die. All this after I have dedicated to her a set of sonatas and had Papa send from Salzburg some of my piano duets for us to play (though only ones written for 2 pianos for sure we could not play together on one!). Now I must rest. Relaying my trials exhausts me as much as if I had to endure them again in the flesh. Pray for me that I am not beset by nightmares. Good night dear friend - 1000 wishes to you and your family.
W. Mozart