Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In praise of Wilhelm Kempff

As a music student I didn't appreciate Wilhelm Kempff. I based my opinion on just a couple of his recordings, and on my own musical prejudices at the time. Also I only heard him live once, at his very last London recital at the Royal Festival Hall, when he was clearly infirm, and his playing was marked by a continuous slowing down of the tempo and difficulty in playing. Like many music students today (if the comments on YouTube are anything to go by) I measured pianists in those days as much by their technique as by their soul. Now I am ONLY interested in their soul.

I remember the amazing ovation the audience gave Kempff at that concert at the Festival Hall in London and didn't fully appreciate at the time that that ovation was for his life's work, and not for that concert. Most of all what I didn't hear, because my ears were closed at the time (reference Oscar Wilde's comments in his wonderful 'De Profundis' on the importance of meekness in an audience in order to be moved), and what I now hear SO CLEARLY is the deep and extremely sincere warmth and honesty of Kempff's playing. His interpretations are about as far removed from the typical virtuoso as it is possible to get, characterized by the lack of any intention to 'show off' and instead filled by just a deep, a serious, and at times humble appreciation of the beauty of the music he is playing. It's a 'quiet' approach (not literally of course), and a different universe to the 'in your face' interpretations that so easily seem to capture the musical headlines (to any historian of music that should immediately recall contemporary descriptions of Chopin's performances). For what it is worth (which is not much) Kempff was never known for his technique, and in his occasional finger slips he shares a kinship with Edwin Fischer - another wonderful pianist whose recordings I admire so much- funny that! If only music students today (and the establishments that nurture them) would realise that while audiences may forgive a wrong note they can never forgive a cold heart.

The Bach recording below is a perfect example of Kempff's warm heart. Today, for me, he is one of the very few pianists who move me and whose music making I always look forward to hearing. Thanks to the abundance of his recordings on the internet I can appreciate his art so much more now than sadly when I was lucky enough to have sat in his last London recital counting wrong notes instead of warm hearts. That's a thought to keep me humble...

And for those who know how particular I am about the way pianists play Chopin (or I think the correct phrase is 'murder Chopin') then they may be surprised by my putting a Chopin performance here. In my opinion most pianists suffocate Chopin with completely misguided 'rubatos' (that huge Chopin misnomer) and terrible affectations, so out of place for a composer who was above all, totally honest in his musical expression. Above all, Chopin's music needs an 'honest' interpretation, the ability to let the music speak for itself. Listen to the completely unaffected, deeply serious and moving performance Kempff gives in this 1959 live recording with conductor Karel Ancerl of the slow movement of Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor. Perhaps you'll agree with me that here Kempff is far closer to the composer's spirit than so many so-called 'Chopin specialists'!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Chopin’s photograph?

Well now we’ve established when his birthday is (or not!), how about what he looked like. Have you noticed how in almost every picture of Chopin he looks completely different? His face and character were without question too subtle and mobile for painters to capture, and I can imagine, with the constant changes of expression on his face, he would have looked very different to every artist that tried to paint him. Certainly that is the impression created by all the myriad of different likenesses of him. The paintings that feel more accurate (whether they are or not) are always the ones that concentrate not on his appearance but his personality. Luckily there are one or two irrefutable pieces of evidence to show what Chopin actually looked like, namely two photographs and a death mask. Yes you heard me correctly, two photographs.

There is a famous daguerreotype of Chopin, likely taken in Paris at the studio of L.A. Bisson around 1847. In it Chopin’s deteriorating health and the signs of lack of sleep are clearly evident, though the often quoted description of his face being swollen as a result of his disease (TB) is actually a mistaken observation. What people are seeing (and mistaking for a swollen face in poor reproductions of the photograph) is the angular shape of his jaw line, which matches perfectly his death mask (a life size copy of which I have in my possession). Chopin did complain of a swollen face at times during his final illness and the Chopin biographer Arthur Hedley made the connection with Chopin's description and what he interpreted as swollen features in the Chopin photograph and the description seems to have stuck. The most striking feature of this famous picture is of course Chopin’s expression in his eyes. To some observers his expression might simply convey the anguish of someone suffering in extreme ill-health. I see it differently, and it might explain why I find this picture so inspiring. What I feel we are really seeing is Chopin without any front. He was too ill to hide his feelings in any way (even though Chopin was well known for being a very private person) and what we are indeed seeing is the composer of the Polonaise-Fantaisie, the Barcarolle, the B minor Sonata, etc.. Chopin’s gaze is penetrating, deeply intelligent, scientific as much as artistic (even Liszt noticed this aspect) and filled with an amazing combination of extreme wisdom and extreme distance. Without doubt it’s one of the most extraordinary pictures ever taken.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): one of only two photographic images of the composer, this one taken at the studio of L.A. Bisson at 65 rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois no later than the end of 1847. Also in the image is what appears to be a score of Chopin's music, carefully placed in view on a piece of furniture positioned next to the composer

Now to the second photograph of Chopin. I first became aware of this picture in 1990 when I saw it reproduced in John O'Shea’s excellent 'Music and Medicine: Medical Profiles of Great Composers' (London, Dent, 1990). The image was rediscovered, along with the later daguerreotype, in 1936 at the offices of Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig in 1936 and photographed by Czeslaw Olszewki (the originals were lost during WWII) and first displayed at an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Polonaise in Paris in 1937. When I first saw this second image of Chopin, having thought I’d seen every known reproduction of the composer’s likeness, I was staggered. Sadly the photograph is extremely deteriorated and the photographer is unknown. Although it’s very hard at first to see anything in the photograph, if you keep looking you begin to see more detail. It was my belief that the picture had been printed the wrong way round in John O'Shea's book (I had no proof, only that Chopin’s hair parting, assuming it is Chopin, was on the opposite side of his head compared with the more famous daguerreotype of Chopin). But close scrutiny of this 2nd photograph did indeed show that this person had the exact physical likeness of Chopin from the other photograph, from the death mask, and even from one or two of the portraits done of the composer. Although it’s hard to make out the expression in the face because of the picture’s deterioration, what does come across is the extreme tension of the subject, like a coiled up spring, something that makes sense if you think that at the time this photograph was taken (possibly 1845 or earlier) Chopin was still composing, working on some of his greatest music. Chopin always found composing a huge struggle; initially when he was ensconced at Nohant for the summer, George Sand’s country retreat near Châteauroux south west of Paris where Chopin did most of his writing, George Sand was able to entice him away from the piano when he was stuck and unable to proceed. After an outing in the countryside he usually came back with his equilibrium restored and was able to resume his composing with renewed enthusiasm. But as the years went by even George Sand was worried about interrupting Chopin in his room, as his hypercritical nature laboriously reexamined every bar of his music with an increased passion and commitment as his music became more and more intense. To quote George Sand:

1st August, 1841: George Sand to P. Gaubert
“Maurice [her son] and I are spending eight hours a day together, drawing and painting... Meanwhile Chopin gets on with his own things and gets cross with the piano. When the keyboard does not carry out his orders he aims such a powerful blow at it with his fist that the poor instrument groans!... He thinks that he is slacking if his back is not breaking under a load of work”

It’s a pity that the earlier photograph of Chopin is so deteriorated, as it would be amazing to see more clearly the expression of this “incomparable genius” [Eugène Delacroix] at such a crucial time of his life, perhaps while still working on some of his last masterpieces, or perhaps the photograph was taken a little later, around the time of his acrimonious split with George Sand that left him so devastated.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): one of only two photographic images of the composer. This one is rarely reproduced due to its deteriorated state. The image was possibly taken in 1845 or earlier.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): photographic image taken 1845 or earlier (reversed).

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): 1847 pencil drawing my Franz Winterhalter, described by Chopin himself as "a very good likeness".

Personally I have never understood why this 2nd photograph of Chopin has not been taken more seriously. True it's terribly damaged, but for anyone devoted to Chopin's music any photograph of him, no matter how deteriorated, has huge value. Over the last two decades I have regularly reproduced it in concert programmes, CD sleeves, etc. and recently began including it in the photo montages that accompany many of my own Chopin videos on YouTube. I was still mystified as to why the picture was so completely ignored on the internet. Detailed internet searches always failed to turn up anything other than the later photographic image and Wikipedia contributors proudly claimed there was only one known photograph of Chopin. Had I been hoodwinked all these years? Was the picture not even of Chopin? Quite recently a screen shot of the photograph taken from one of my YouTube videos appeared on Wikipedia and before long everyone was talking about the ‘2nd photograph’ of Chopin. So we must thank Dr O’Shea for helping to make the picture more accessible back in 1990, and I feel very proud that my efforts helped to get the photograph better known on the internet and into people's awareness.

As for Chopin’s death mask, it’s truly remarkable (as well as the death mask, another of my most cherished possessions is a life size cast of Chopin's left hand). Chopin’s friends stated that after his death the muscles in his face relaxed and his face resumed a more youthful quality minus all the strain of his last illness. This is certainly evident in the death mask, taken by Auguste Clésinger on the morning of 17 October 1849. Clésinger also created the funeral monument over Chopin’s tomb (of which Chopin’s close friend the painter Delacroix was so disparaging). It’s amazing when viewing this death mask to realise we are looking at Chopin’s exact profile, that so many people must have gazed at at his concerts. I'll never forget the first time I saw the mask: having no idea what Chopin really looked like, I was stunned. I was surprised at the level of expression in the face, considering it was a death mask, and I was equally stunned by the fact that he looked exactly as I had expected him to look, just like his music in fact, even though that's an irrational thing to say (interestingly a century later Kay Swift said the same thing of George Gershwin's appearance). At the same time it’s impossible not to forget the words of Solange Clésinger, George Sand’s daughter and Auguste Clésinger's wife, who was present at Chopin’s death bed. She later wrote of the absolute horror after he passed away, as she looked into his eyes (that so movingly stare back at us in that soul searching way in the 1849 photograph) and saw “that the soul had died too”.

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): death mask front view (from Jack Gibbons' own collection)

Frédéric Chopin (1810 - 1849): death mask side view (from Jack Gibbons' own collection)

* * * * *

Chopin’s birthday?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was born on 1 March 1810, according to all the statements of both Chopin, his friends and contemporaries, and his family including his mother. But in 1892, 43 years after his death, a baptismal record was found that gave his birth date as 22 February, exactly one week earlier. The baptismal certificate was written nearly two months after his birth, on 23rd April, when the infant was presented at the local church by his father (also oddly enough ‘22 February’, the date written on this document, happened to be the birth date of Chopin’s godfather, who was supposed to be at the baptism but didn't make it). If you’re the kind of person who favours the ‘status quo’ then you’ll probably side with the ‘official’ church document. And if your approach is more emotional you’re more likely to favour the date that Chopin and his mother gave for his birth!

This is why I am a little disappointed with some figures in the music world, who favour 22 February for Chopin’s birth, sighting as reference the London Chopin Society’s position which in turn bases its position on the views of its founder Lucie Swiatek. Rose Cholmondeley from the Society tells an interesting, though hard to verify, story that Jane Stirling, Chopin’s pupil, was told by Chopin that she was the only one to know Chopin’s ‘real’ birthday. This is odd, because the same Chopin Society article also sights confusion between ‘name-days’ and ‘birthdays’ being the reason for the discrepancy of dates over Chopin’s birth, even though Chopin and his family also celebrated his name-day separately on 5th March, and even went to some trouble to celebrate and acknowledge birthdays and name-days within the family. And why would Chopin, one of the most down-to-earth and rational people to have existed in this world (who even initially refused ‘last rights’ on his deathbed ‘to avoid being a hypocrite’) try to knowingly hide his ‘real’ birth date from everyone, including presumably George Sand, his mother and family, and closest friends, but not from Jane Stirling, a pupil to whom Chopin was not particularly close. Jane Stirling’s position makes this story, assuming it to be a true Jane Stirling recollection, unreliable to say the least: her fanatical devotion to Chopin was such that she would have done everything she could to preserve a story about Chopin to which she alone held the key! Having had the pleasure of meeting Lucie Swiatek and bearing in mind Jane Stirling’s partisan position, I can safely say that neither of these sources should be considered trustworthy when it comes to facts regarding Chopin (to put it mildly!). If one day it is proved I am wrong I will be prefuse in my recantation! Jane Stirling however does deserve considerable credit for keeping everything in her possession connected with Chopin after his death (including music scores with Chopin’s annotations, letters, etc.) and which now serves as a very valuable study source. Unfortunately some music bloggers are so swayed by Lucie Swiatek and the London Chopin Society’s position that they don’t wish Chopin a 200th birthday greeting today, 1st March, on their blogs, even though Chopin’s own mother wrote these words to her only son:

“Dear Fryderyk, The 1st and the 5th of March [Fryderyk’s birthday and name-day] are approaching and I am prevented from embracing you… “
[Chopin’s mother (Justyna Chopin) to Fryderyk in Paris;
Warsaw, end of February 1837]

Of course we still have the problem of the date written into the church baptismal document of 23 April 1837 (which remember is also, coincidentally, the date of birth of Chopin’s godfather – it should also be pointed out that there are other mistakes on Chopin’s birth document, such as wrong form of employment given to the co-signatories and so on). So let me put this to the test. Do YOU know when your birthday is? And does your MOTHER know when your birthday is? If you or your mother cannot remember your birth date then I would suggest you go with the 22 February date for Chopin’s birth. If on the other hand you have, during the course of your life, come across a document from a government official or civil servant with a mistake on it then you should go with the 1 March date for Chopin’s birth. Problem solved! Personally I favour trusting myself and especially my mother for confirmation of my birthday!

1st March 2010

* * * * *

Sunday, February 21, 2010

On ‘originality’ and ‘self-consciousness’

There is an obsession that has been prevalent in all the arts for almost a century, and is largely responsible for a creative stifling over several generations. It is something that has been promoted and encouraged, and still is, at art and music colleges and university art and music departments throughout the world and indeed is one of the main philosophies of arts education. It is the idea that the goal all creative artists should strive towards is ‘originality’ – “originality, at all costs, originality” as the head of one of the major London art colleges recently proudly described his college’s mantra. But it’s not that simple: the ‘originality’ in question is something that is measured by predetermined criteria of what is and what isn’t ‘original’. The emphasis of this philosophy, together with its questionable definitions, has created havoc for the creative artist.

The striving for ‘originality’ is a strangely 20th century, and now 21st century, self-consciousness. This self-consciousness in the arts has been encouraged by a technological revolution that has enabled artists to hear and see, and by extension therefore to worry about, their place in artistic history like never before, thanks to recorded sound, photography, film, etc.. And the criteria for what constitutes ‘originality’ comes from a false sense of perspective gleaned from a mythological history of music that bears little resemblance to reality, but which is taught at all schools and universities, such an important topic that I am saving it up for a blog all to itself.

In order for ‘originality’ to become a standard with which to measure artistic worth and ‘progress’ (another artistic misnomer which will be the subject of a separate blog!) parameters had to be set for what was and wasn’t ‘original’. To those waking up to the new self-consciousness of the early 20th century, the only possible way to be ‘original’ was to break with the past. The biggest sin of all in culture, it was soon widely regarded, was to ‘rehash’ the things of the past. To this day this remains the key philosophy dictating everything in the creative arts, music criticism and music education.

Now even a cursory glance at this philosophy shows it to be a fallacy. Two of the most original minds in all music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Frédéric Chopin, both had their hearts and minds rooted firmly in the past, and though through the power of their imaginations they couldn’t help but write something uniquely their own, they saw no contradiction between that and assimilating, learning from, and even emulating what had gone before them. Bach was even openly criticized for having his head stuck in the past, fascinated with a previous generation of contrapuntal composers when his contemporaries were moving in a different direction. And when Chopin appears to be at his most revolutionary closer examination shows he is simply and wisely applying knowledge acquired from a careful study of Bach and others before him.

Then there are composers such as Brahms, or Schubert, who on the surface appear less revolutionary in the sense than Chopin or Bach were, but who is to say their music is any less valid, or less ‘original’, than a more ‘revolutionary’ composer?

The simple answer to being ‘original’ is this: every human being IS original, it’s written into our genetic code. If you are true to yourself, and create something that is an honest reflection of your own feelings, it WILL be original, regardless of its superficial ‘style’ ‘idiom’ or ‘form’, and regardless of what age you live in. Whether it’s any good or not is another matter, and usually time has a very good way of sorting out the good from the not so good. But self-consciously trying to be original has been the death knell of creativity in the 20th century. It has introduced a whole new level of negative self-awareness that has had the effect of stifling true expression. It has given rise to a manic desire by artists to shock (as if that was something ‘original’! - as Chopin once said: “You can be struck dumb with astonishment at unexpected news equally whether it is shouted out loud or barely whispered in your ear”) and has provided all manor of excuses for what, by every other criteria, would simply be described as rubbish (to not beat about the bush!). For examples of rubbish in the name of art please wait for a future blog! Of course taking the word literally, being ‘original’ is not a difficult task at all, providing you have no care over the quality of what you create. This kind of originality can be achieved with the greatest of ease and the least ability (as has been proved frequently in the last century).

As for the parameters widely used in music institutions in the last half century or more to define ‘originality’ in music, they are based largely on the theories of one man, to such an extent that this person could easily be described as one of the most influential figures in 20th century classical music: Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was a composer of intense and dramatic romantic music at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, who later became famous for his open rebellion against traditional tonality in music (though he himself was convinced he was "a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition"). In the 1930s he emigrated from Europe to the United States and actually became a good friend (and admirer ironically enough – as will be explained in a future blog!) of George Gershwin. His eulogy to Gershwin following the latter's early death is moving, heartfelt and generous. Gershwin had shown his typical broad-mindedness and generosity by helping to sponsor the first recordings of Schoenberg's string quartets just a few months before his own death. But unlike Gershwin, Schoenberg had felt he had reached a dead end in creativity that was forcing him to rethink his whole approach to music. Like Picasso, who represented a similar - though not as ‘revolutionary’ – approach in art, Schoenberg felt restricted by what he saw as conventional methods of musical construction. In searching for a way out of these strictures (which oddly enough other composers with greater imaginations did not feel were strictures) and to avoid simply ‘rehashing’ music that had already been written by previous generations of composers, he began to theorise a compositional method that opposed the basic laws of nature and sound (though he had no scientific background on which to base his radical ideas) and as a consequence developed a whole new set of rules dictating how music could be written.

[One of Gershwin’s 1937 home movies, featuring Arnold and Gertrud Schoenberg, Gertrud’s brother Rudi Kolisch (of the Kolisch string quartet), Doris Vidor, and a few brief glimpses of Gershwin himself. The musical extract accompanying the video is the beginning of Schoenberg’s String Quartet no.4 Op.37, written in 1936, in a 1937 recording by the Kolisch Quartet that was sponsored by George Gershwin. Also included in the short video is a still of Gershwin at work on his famous oil painting portrait of Schoenberg, and a very moving eulogy uttered by Schoenberg the day after Gershwin’s untimely death in July 1937.]

In reality Schoenberg, like Picasso and many others, was taking the intellectually easy way out of a constant problem for all artists: using and developing the imagination. The struggle to create is far from easy and usually comes with intense self-doubt and self-criticism; even after a lifetime of trying many talented and gifted artists may not be happy to discover they had nothing interesting to say after all! Perhaps not surprisingly then, Schoenberg avoided the struggle altogether by simply developing a new set of rules, to replace the old ones (a bit like solving the problems of tsarist Russia by replacing it with communist Russia). But the thing with great art is you can’t manufacture it on a production line, no matter how good the rules are. Being the world’s greatest expert at writing a piece of music in sonata form may be no match for the humble jottings of a novice who has a greater imagination! Johann Sebastian Bach’s most technically accomplished fugues may not be his best (and in any case, Bach was a great one for breaking the so-called ‘rules’ of music). But Schoenberg felt he had found a way out of his writer's block, and even told his friends, once he had arrived at his new method, that he was composing with the enthusiastic excitement again of a young composer. Of course in the literal sense of the word Schoenberg’s work after his ‘road to Damascus’ conversion was ‘original’ but there was nothing natural about this self-conscious cerebral approach, which is why it ultimately failed. Sadly, and this is the much more important issue, the repercussions of his experiment changed the face of ‘classical’ music for decades and are still felt in music to this day. Arnold Schoenberg's work and theories, which after all even Gershwin had shown a curious interest in, were not as damaging as the huge machinery that went into place after him to try to turn what he had started into the 'norm' in new classical music.

For those unfamiliar with Schoenberg and his work, I’ll just summarize what he’s most famous for: basically he decided the traditional key structure and tonality of music, and the way harmonies related to one another, could be jettisoned (the composer Liszt had experimented a little with this idea a few decades earlier but went on to conclude that anyone who came up with music without any tonality would be a “crazed idiot”). While the system of 12 major and 12 minor keys in western classical music was fairly new (by which I mean had been around for a mere few hundred years) the idea of a tonal centre to music (a kind of hierarchy where some notes, and usually one in particular, are more important than others) had been around for much longer, certainly as far back as 200BCE when we have some of the earliest evidence of musical notation, and presumably even earlier, right back perhaps to the moment the first musical sounds could be created. This is not surprising since the way tones relate to one another is a matter of pure physics and the make-up of sound waves that no cerebral, if well meaning, professor from Vienna/California can change.

[The Seikilos epitaph, recreated on this video, is the oldest surviving example of a complete musical composition, including musical notation, from anywhere in the world. Both words and musical notation were found carved on a tombstone not far from Ephesus in Turkey, dated anywhere between 200 BCE and 100 CE]

But Schoenberg was convinced that eventually a 'musical evolution' would occur (again with no scientific basis to back up his argument) in which there would no longer be a discernible difference between consonant and dissonant sounds (see below for my description of dissonance in music). A hundred years later we are still waiting for Schoenberg's predicted 'musical evolution'! Strangely enough, Schoenberg’s rebellion with the past didn’t extend to abolishing the 12 notes of the western chromatic scale (later 'Schoenberg disciples' saw to that). Instead he seems to have cherry picked which aspects of the past he would keep and which he would jettison. It wasn’t long before Schoenberg’s ‘atonal’ approach, as it became known, was seen by the music establishment elite as a 'serious’ development in music, and it was eventually adopted with a real a passion by figures in the music establishment around the world once the old guard of 19th century professors had eventually died off! It seemed the perfect foil to the ‘easy listening’ of the now fast growing pop industry of the 20th century.

It is hard to over-emphasize the dominance the Schoenberg approach has had over classical composers in the 20th century. Although still referred to today as ‘avant-garde’ in truth the Schoenberg ‘atonal’ approach has been enthusiastically embraced by music establishments (universities, BBC, major orchestras, etc.) for many decades and thus, far from being a “pushing of the boundaries of what is accepted as the norm or the status quo” (avant-garde definition from a wikipedia contributor) the Schoenbergian approach has actually been the status quo for several generations! Even those not supporting it out-right would half adopt some if it’s theories. And woe betide any young creative mind wanting to avoid this path. To give an example of the peer pressure exhorted on musicians the pianist Alfred Brendel recently went so far as to suggest that after Schoenberg Ravel’s music could only be seen as kitsch. Presumably Brendel would have applied this expression to any number of post-Schoenbergian works not taking into account Schoenbergian ideals, such as works by Elgar, Fauré, Gershwin, etc.. Interestingly, I haven’t heard Brendel describing Mozart’s music as sounding kitsch after the revolution in harmony that came before him from Johann Sebastian Bach, even though an equally ‘valid’ parallel intellectual argument (using Brendel’s ludicrous criteria) could be made in that case.

Brendel’s comments are very much in step with Stalin’s approach to the arts, though I doubt that Alfred Brendel would see it that way! But in the same manner that Stalin forced his narrow cultural ideas on the artists around him, in the west a similar psychological battle was taking place, but in exactly the opposite direction. Powerful establishments such as the BBC literally dictated musical style policy, exactly as Stalin had done in the Soviet Union. To reject these ideals was to be seen as ‘backward’ ‘lacking in intellectual rigour/imagination’ etc etc.. Composers and artists that failed to meet these mostly (but not exclusively) Schoenbergian stylistic requirements fell by the wayside (I have direct experience of the BBC’s ‘listening panel’ that chose works suitable for broadcast back in the early 1980s - any work failing the panel’s criteria was banned from broadcast by the network). Even composers as highly regarded, successful and established (but more tonal) as William Walton and Samuel Barber felt the pressure, and tried (in both cases, and with equally disastrous results) to change their own compositional style. A new composer, even if he didn’t adopt Schoenbergian ideals, could only be considered ‘bona fide’ if a certain proportion of ‘dissonance’ was present in his work.

Since not all readers of this blog will be familiar with musical terminology a brief description of dissonance, and its importance in music, is needed here. To put it crudely dissonance is the sound of two or more simultaneously struck notes that don’t ordinarily appear to fit together and seem to clash (again it’s a matter of pure physics). To the ear the sound can be almost jarring, and certainly noticeable. To some uneducated ears dissonance might often simply sound like wrong notes or mistakes. Yet dissonance is vital to music. Without dissonance music would be intolerably bland and dull, like a meal that has no seasoning, or a spice dish with no spice (or a blog with no controversy!). But just as too much seasoning or spice can actually dull the palate to the excitement of the flavour, so too much dissonance in music, without any contrasting consonance, becomes meaningless. In truth dissonance can be a thing of great beauty, but when overused can begin to sound not just ugly, but dull even. With no relevance to its surroundings, a constant over repetitive dissonance dulls the aural palate to such an extent that all sounds, dissonant and non-dissonant, begin to lose their meaning. Perhaps this was what Schoenberg was referring to in his 'musical evolution' description of consonances and dissonances eventually becoming indistinguishable in this 'wonderful' new world of no tonality and keys; if so it's a recipe for music for the brain dead. Composers throughout the ages have used dissonance with great effect, heightening the emotional intensity of their work in a way that is very special. Used with great skill it becomes one of music’s most powerful tools. By contrast, in Schoenberg (and his followers) all the dissonant knives have become dull, all the sharpness is gone, and gone is the tension that is the life blood of so much great music.

As Schoenberg’s school of thought gained ascendancy in music establishments the general public, by and large, soon began to forget about the existence of contemporary ‘classical’ music, as the many genres of pop speedily engulfed the world, the airwaves, and every form of sound reproduction. This only increased the desire of classical music ‘hard-liners’ to be even more zealous in their search for so-called ‘originality’. A new characteristic was added to this mix: the ‘unpopular’. It became something to be proud of if no one liked your work. To be truly original meant being extremely ‘unpopular’ and so it provided ample excuse for the continuation of anything that was failing, such as the BBC’s classical radio station Radio 3, whose audience until very recently was dwindling at an alarming rate as it became increasingly irrelevant to most people. Yet its existence continued, funded ironically enough through the UK government’s taxation of its own population, most of whom never tuned in to the station.

It should be pointed out here that there is nothing to be gained on either side of the argument for and against 'popularity'. The oft-repeated criticism of the ‘popular’ side of this debate (that ‘unpopular’ artists are always very keen to point out) is that the artist has sold his soul to the devil and is high bent on achieving maximum popularity and maximum financial gain for his terrible (implied) work. As I said, either point of view is unsatisfactory, and ridiculously over-simplistic in any case. Strangely enough, those who represent the ‘unpopular front’ never adequately explain, during their arguments against commercialism, the dichotomy of the many hundreds of ‘unpopular’ artists who have made a very comfortable living from government sponsored commissions, university positions, music college tenures, etc..

If you keep your ear to the ground you will frequently hear an argument that has often been made in defense of ‘unpopular originality’ – the ‘starving artiste syndrome’ you might call it, the implication being that the artist’s work can only be measured in inverse proportion to its success. But again past examples are being ignored. In a survey of past works of art it’s possible to find works revolutionary and conservative, popular and unpopular, yet there is no consistent match between conservative and popular or revolutionary and unpopular, or the other way round for that matter. Yes, it’s true that Johann Sebastian Bach offended a few narrow-minded town councilors with his bold harmonies, and one German critic in particular became obsessed with knocking what he saw as the nonsensical originality of Chopin’s music. Yet at the same time both composers enjoyed tremendous popularity from their listeners. A concert featuring Chopin’s newest works was even more eagerly attended than a concert featuring works he had played previously. The same was true in the public response to Mozart’s new and old works, with his new works being much more keenly anticipated, so much so that Mozart actually felt the public pressure to write and present something new each time he performed.

Yet in the 20th century a whole new development arose as a result of the ‘unpopular originality’ psychology: the ‘unpopular’ new music concert was born. Putting ‘newly composed classical music’ into a concert became a guaranteed way of depleting the audience in the 20th century. Never before had this situation existed: it was truly a phenomenon of the 20th century. But of course as audiences ‘stayed away’ so classical composers became ‘encouraged’ by this lack of support, as it seemed to only justify their position as truly ‘original’ (and therefore unpopular) creative artists.

By necessity I must point out yet again, as it can’t be emphasised enough, that just because I am attacking on one side of this argument doesn’t mean the opposite is true. The fact that a work is popular is in no way a badge of its quality. Quite apart from anything else, the reasons why a work is popular have to be called into question. One reason people often say they enjoy a piece of music is simply because they ‘recognise’ it. For example the slow movement of Beethoven’s 'Moonlight' Sonata is easily more popular than the equally moving (and immediately attractive) slow movement of his Sonata in C Opus 2 no.3, for no other reason than people ‘know’ the 'Moonlight' Sonata; they recognise it, therefore they think they ‘like’ it. But it would be foolish to draw the conclusion from this that Beethoven's 'Moonlight' sonata slow movement is therefore better than the slow movement of his Op.2 no.3 (just as it would be equally foolish for the musical ‘elite’ to decide the Moonlight is less good because it is more popular). The ‘originality versus popularity in art’ theme is deserving of a whole blog to itself.

The only conclusion for an artist is to create what they believe in, “without regard to praise or blame” (as an astute contemporary of Chopin, Sophie Leo, observed when listening to him). If you are true to yourself what you create will be original (you don’t have to try to do anything). And if you have nothing to say, there’s unfortunately nothing in the world that will help you say it!

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New composers of tonal classical music

An excellent and extremely erudite article by the composer David Arditti on the plight of ‘tonal classical music’ in a century dominated by atonality, minimalism and other 20th century musical trends can be found here. Arditti's succinct article is a must read for anyone seriously interested in this topic.

Sophie Leo's description of Chopin

Sophie Leo was the wife of Chopin's banker Auguste Leo. Auguste Leo was a close friend of Chopin, as well as his financial advisor and intermediary in the composer's dealings with foreign publishers. The couple held regular musical soirées at their Paris home and Chopin dedicated his Polonaise Op.53 to Auguste. Sophie Leo's wonderful description of Chopin, first published anonymously, is worth quoting at length:

“No one who has not known Chopin will ever be able to imagine a being like him or to conceive to what exaltation the soul, before its release from its mortal shell, can attain; no one who has not heard Chopin’s compositions played by their composer will ever have an intimation of how, quite without regard to tradition, or to praise or blame, the purest inspiration may be carried along on the wings of the spirit. Chopin was himself, surely the first, probably the eternally unique manifestation of his species… He appeared hardly to touch the piano; one might have thought an instrument superfluous. There was no suggestion of the mechanical; the flute-like murmur of his playing had the ethereal effect of Aeolian harps. Yet despite these gifts, to which there was nowhere in the wide world a parallel, Chopin was gracious, modest, and unassuming. He was not a pianist of the modern school, but, in his own way, had created a style of his own, a style that one cannot describe. Whether appearing in the private salon or in the concert hall he stepped quietly and modestly to the piano, was satisfied with whatever seat had been provided, showed at once by his simple dress and natural bearing that all forms of affectation and charlatanry were distasteful to him, and, without any sort of introduction, at once began his soulful and heartfelt performance. He was above setting off his talent by appearing before the public with long, disheveled hair, or with a lorgnette, or with coquetry. He offered art, not artifice, and gave it a dignified setting, not a grotesque one”.

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Friday, February 5, 2010

Is classical music dead?

I’ll be exploring this theme on a regular basis in future blogs, meanwhile here’s something with which to whet your appetite.

Paul Driver in the Sunday Times has described his music as "impressive, thoughtful, entertaining and extremely varied".

Paul Griffiths, writing in the London Times, has said of Fox's work that "he takes simple ideas but he makes them sound quite wonderful".

Eager to hear what they're talking about? Wait, there's more:

Tom Service in his Guardian Classical Music blog writes "I'm missing my fix of new music in Huddersfield this year; but if, like me, you can't get up north, there are other options to stop you going cold turkey. Tomorrow at the Warehouse, the British Music Information Centre's consistently innovative Cutting Edge series closes this year's season with a mouth-watering concert: a programme from new new music ensemble Kürbis (it's German for pumpkin), and world premieres from James Weeks, Christopher Fox, and John Habron."

Now it's time to listen to that "mouth-watering", "impressive, thoughtful, entertaining", "quite wonderful" music. Here's a portion of Silver Jubilee March (from 'My First Century' 1997-99) by British composer Christopher Fox:

For comparison, here's another march also by a British composer, written only 96 years earlier, at the beginning of Christopher Fox's 'century':

Still think classical music isn't dead?

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This blog resumes with a significant Gershwin video

This blog came to a dramatic halt some time ago, and with the demands of facebook, twitter etc. it has been demoted to a 2nd class citizen. But the frustration of 140 characters on Twitter, and the 1800 of my 'closest friends' on facebook, has made me think blogging isn't so bad after all - at least for the serious minded, if there's any such person left in today's world. So for now, this blog continues with...

Gershwin... a composer who today is still not taken seriously in the way he should. I am shocked at the level of ignorance of his music, and most entries on him in dictionaries and encyclopedias of music should be scrapped! Here is a video that begins to address this issue: it's over an hour long, a talk I wrote and presented for the BBC some years ago, aided by the actor Sir Ben Kingsley who read Gershwin's letters. It's a fairly detailed look at Gershwin's music (within the confines of an hour's radio programme, plus a piano for musical examples, and a superb archive of rare recordings) in that I try to explain some of Gershwin's compositional methods, as well as explanations of his amazing piano skills, in a chronological and psychological survey of his all too short life. I have also added helpful video images (rare stills and movies of Gershwin, musical examples etc.) to this recently posted YouTube video. So if you have the time (and as my extremely busy father once said: "You should always have time to look out of the window") take an hour out of your schedule and find out why Gershwin still manages to make so many people happy over 70 years after his untimely death, and why he will continue to do so as long as there are people still interested in real and fine artistic expression.

Gershwin in Focus with Jack Gibbons and Sir Ben Kingsley