Thursday, September 13, 2012

Paris Sonata, Solar Eclipse and Revolution

An alignment of events on different continents...

[John Trumbull: Presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence to Congress]

Towards the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, almost 15 months after the Continental Congress had courageously declared their independence from the British Crown, the British attempted to deal a fatal blow to the rebels' cause by taking their capital Philadelphia on September 26 1777.

Three days earlier, on a different continent, a 21-year-old Mozart, having resigned from his employment in Salzburg, had boldly set out, accompanied by his mother, on an extended European trip in the hope of securing musical and financial success in Paris and other European cities (an endeavour that ended in tragedy and failure).

In March 1778, while tensions between America and Britain escalated to a new level following the decision by France to take the American side, the Mozarts arrived in Paris. Mozart's mother Anna Maria noted with interest in her letter to her husband on 29 May 1778 the tense political situation (with the likelihood of war between France and Britain). Following France's support of the United States the British were forced to change tactics, evacuating Philadelphia on June 18 1778 in favour of defending New York from the French.

[24 June 1778 Solar Eclipse by Antonio de Ulloa]

Six days later, another dramatic event took place with the first ever recorded total solar eclipse in the US on June 24 1778. The event was keenly anticipated by none other than Thomas Jefferson, whose astronomical enthusiasm was only curtailed by the weather, as he wrote to his astronomer friend David Rittenhouse (while congratulating him on the recovery of Philadelphia): "We were much disappointed in Virginia generally on the day of the great eclipse, which proved to be cloudy. In Williamsburgh, where it was total, I understand only the beginning was seen...".

Back in France the young Mozart had more pressing concerns with the sudden and unexpected decline in his mother's health. Anna Maria Mozart had only reluctantly agreed to accompany her son on this extended European trip while Mozart's father, Leopold, and sister, Nannerl, stayed behind in Salzburg. Exhausted after the long journey to Paris, and living in poor accommodation in order to save money, Anna Maria Mozart's health became dramatically worse in June 1778. On June 19, the day after the British evacuation from Philadelphia, she became bedridden and within days was given last rites, dying on July 3 and leaving her son to convey the dreadful news to his father back home in Salzburg. The Paris trip had been so unsuccessful financially that Mozart was forced to use his mother's precious amethyst ring to pay for the nursing expenses. The dysfunctionality of Mozart's relationship with his father is typified by the way Leopold, for the rest of his life, blamed his son for Anna Maria's tragic death.

[Johann Nepomuk della Croce: the Mozart family c.1780, showing Mozart and his sister Nannerl at the keyboard, with his father Leopold holding a violin, and his deceased mother Anna Maria represented in the portrait on the wall.]

Mozart's Sonata in A minor K.310 was written during the bleak summer of 1778 and has long been thought to be a reflection of the composer's dark mood during those terrible weeks. Music was such a dominant force in Mozart's life that it's also very likely he sought refuge in it, becoming more focused than ever on his art, as the music clearly shows.

[Mozart Sonata in A minor K.310 (1/3: Allegro maestoso),
Jack Gibbons (piano), recorded live in concert, July 1989]

[Mozart Sonata in A minor K.310 (2/3: Andante cantabile),
Jack Gibbons (piano), recorded live in concert, July 1989]

[Mozart Sonata in A minor K.310 (3/3: Presto),
Jack Gibbons (piano), recorded live in concert, July 1989]

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!"

[Edward Elgar (1857-1934) photographed by Charles Grindrod in 1903, the year of the first sketches of the 2nd Symphony.]

The Symphony no.2 Op.63 of Edward Elgar, completed on 28 February 1911, is one of his of greatest works. To his close friend Alice Stuart-Wortley (nicknamed 'Windflower' in his correspondence) Elgar wrote: "I have written out my soul in the concerto, Symphony No. 2 and the Ode and you know it ... in these three works I have shewn myself". At the heart of the 2nd symphony is an epic slow movement, sometimes described as a funeral march, a deeply moving piece filled with so many amazing moments too numerous to mention in this short post. Like the whole symphony it's a piece of music that repays constant relistening. In today's world of short sound bites I worry about people's ability to appreciate and enjoy something of this length and complexity, though the music and emotion is so direct and heartfelt I would be amazed if after a few listenings anyone new to this work was not drawn in to Elgar's wonderful world. The form of the movement is fairly straightforward, a kind of sonata form where the 'march' forms the main theme and a more lyrical and impassioned melody forms the second big theme and which leads to two big climaxes, the second even bigger than the first. In between these themes there are many magical episodes. The return of the funeral march (before the movement reaches it's second big climax) is hauntingly transformed by a meandering solo oboe lament played above the march (at 7:26 in the video below) with a pulsating string accompaniment. In the video Elgar's work receives a truly inspired performance from the the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (recorded in 1964).

[The slow movement (Larghetto) from Elgar's Symphony no.2 Op.63, with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (recorded 1964) with rare video of Elgar conducting at the Empire (later Wembley) Stadium, London on April 23 1924 and at the opening of the Abbey Road Studios, London, on November 12 1931, as well as other home movies of the composer.]

The video also includes various rare films of Elgar. You can see Elgar conducting at the opening of the Abbey Road studios in 1931 [for the whole unedited sound recording of this occasion see the video at the foot of this blog]. Also seen are excerpts from various home movies featuring Elgar, Vera Hockman, his daughter Carice and her Cairn terrier, and his own two dogs Marco (a spaniel) and Mina (a Cairn terrier). Rarer still is the brief movie shown at the beginning of the video, of Elgar conducting at the opening of the British Empire Exhibition in London on 23 April 1924. This was not a happy occasion for Elgar who detested all the jingoistic ceremony and military displays (coming only a few years after the appalling slaughter of the First World War). He was conducting his Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 and his arrangement of Parry's Jerusalem. When he arrived at the rehearsal the choir that was present "cheered the veteran conductor as he mounted the steps" though he seemed a "lonely figure in black poised in his lofty pulpit". Afterwards Elgar wrote to Alice Stuart-Wortley describing the event as having "no soul & no romance & no imagination".

Over the top of the score of the 2nd Symphony Elgar has quoted the first two lines of an 1821 poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley: 'Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!' [you can read the full poem below]. The 'Spirit of Delight' theme is presumed to be the first movement's passionate opening E flat theme. It makes a beautiful and hushed re-appearance towards the end of the slow movement (at 12.10 in this video). Knowing of Elgar's constant battle with depression this is a very moving and deeply personal moment. Back in the 1980s I and the composer Lionel Sainsbury were able to spend a whole afternoon with the original manuscript of Elgar's 2nd symphony (unsupervised!) at the Elgar Birthplace Museum in Worcestershire. We didn't tear out any pages (alla Mr Bean, see Mr Bean - Library destruction), but handled it as the precious artefact it is. And just to show that Elgar didn't always take himself so seriously, on the very top of the first page of his manuscript, underneath the 'Rarely, rarely, comest thou, Spirit of Delight!' quote, Elgar had drawn one of his characteristic doodles: a gleeful little man in the form of a treble clef (the 'Spirit of Delight'), cycling along the staves with great panache!

* * * * *

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822):
Rarely, Rarely, Comest Thou (1821)

[Portrait of Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, Rome, 1819.]

Rarely, rarely, comest thou,
Spirit of Delight!
Wherefore hast thou left me now
Many a day and night?
Many a weary night and day
'Tis since thou art fled away.

How shall ever one like me
Win thee back again?
With the joyous and the free
Thou wilt scoff at pain.
Spirit false! thou hast forgot
All but those who need thee not.

As a lizard with the shade
Of a trembling leaf,
Thou with sorrow art dismayed;
Even the sighs of grief
Reproach thee, that thou art not near,
And reproach thou wilt not hear.

Let me set my mournful ditty
To a merry measure;
Thou wilt never come for pity,
Thou wilt come for pleasure;
Pity then will cut away
Those cruel wings, and thou wilt stay.

I love all that thou lovest,
Spirit of Delight!
The fresh Earth in new leaves dressed,
And the starry night;
Autumn evening, and the morn
When the golden mists are born.

I love snow, and all the forms
Of the radiant frost;
I love waves, and winds, and storms,
Everything almost
Which is Nature's, and may be
Untainted by man's misery.

I love tranquil solitude,
And such society
As is quiet, wise, and good
Between thee and me
What difference? but thou dost possess
The things I seek, not love them less.

I love Love—though he has wings,
And like light can flee,
But above all other things,
Spirit, I love thee—
Thou art love and life! Oh, come,
Make once more my heart thy home.

* * * * *

Elgar conducts Pomp and Circumstance March no.1

Below is a video of Edward Elgar conducting the trio of his Pomp and Circumstance March no.1 at the opening of the Abbey Road Studios, London, on November 12 1931. His words, spoken to the orchestra at the beginning of this short film clip, are as follows: "Good morning gentlemen. Glad to see you all. Very light programme this morning. Please play this tune as though you've never heard it before".

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dreams of a composer

Some self-indulgent reflection inspired by my 50th birthday

From a very early age I have had a huge passion for music, greatly encouraged by my parents who created an environment where I and all my brothers and sisters were involved in making music in one way or another. It must have been quite a noisy household as all 5 of us would compete to get time on the piano; I being the 2nd youngest had to fight for my place against my older sisters who were already accomplished pianists. At the age of 8 or 9 my mother took my older brother and I to the local music shop and picked out two scores for us: 'First Year Handel' and 'First Year Haydn'. It was quite random who got which book but to my delight I was given the Handel. Handel quickly became my favourite composer as I pounded my way through arrangements of the Messiah, and his famous Largo. As long as I can remember I would get completely absorbed by music, whether listening or playing, and often at the cost of those around me! To illustrate the point: when I was 10 a close school friend of mine was returning to the States with his family, they having spent a sabbatical year in my home town of Oxford England. On the eve of their departure my friend invited me to walk back with him to his house one last time, but I turned down the invitation because I was itching to play the piano. After a few minutes at the instrument, with my friend walking the mile back to his house for the last time, alone, the callousness of my action suddenly hit me and I rushed out of the house after him, but it was too late, he had long gone. The next time I saw him was nearly 20 years later.

Around the same time I was singing regularly in various church choirs, including the choir of Pembroke College Oxford. It was there, at the age of 9, that I first discovered the music of Bach, when we sang his beautiful chorale from the St Matthew Passion, ‘Oh sacred head, sore wounded’. It made a very deep impression on me.

[Pembroke College Chapel Oxford, where I was first introduced to the music of Bach:]

[J.S. Bach: O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded, Kings College Choir Cambridge, David Willcocks, 1973]

At the same time I anxiously showed off my own composition to the Pembroke College organ scholar; it was a Sonata in C for piano, one of my earliest pieces, written when I was 9, the manuscript destroyed, I'm sorry to say, by my own hand a few years later!

I continued with both my singing and my composing and at the age of 11 wrote my first choral work, a setting of Christina Rossetti's Christmas carol ‘Before the paling of the stars’. I still have the manuscript – for some reason this piece did NOT get destroyed! It was first performed by the choir of St Aldates in Oxford and I also incorporated the carol into a lengthy semi-improvised composition for choir and organ which was also performed on the same occasion.

Around that time my piano skills were dramatically improving and at the ripe old age of 12 my piano teacher suggested I might consider becoming a concert pianist, such was my enthusiasm for performing even then. I was so excited by her confidence in me that I remember skipping all the way home after the lesson singing to myself "I'm going to be a concert pianist, I'm going to be a concert pianist". For the next few years I continued composing mainly piano pieces, most of which tended to me of a virtuoso nature, culminating in a 30 minute three movement piano concerto (which I also orchestrated). Though these are obviously juvenile works when I look at them today I can see they showed promise. Below is an early (undated) recording of my improvisation on themes from my Piano Concerto (one has to feel sorry for my sister whose bedroom was directly above the piano room - in those days most of my composing and playing was done early in the morning before I went to school, beginning at 5.30AM!).

[Gibbons: Improvisation on themes from Piano Concerto (1976) (undated early recording)]

Unfortunately my psyche at the age of 13, when I wrote my piano concerto, was not what it is today. After I completed it I decided it was all rubbish. At the same time I was becoming aware of some of the less savoury trends in 20th century classical music, including the work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School, and I became very self-consciously aware that the music I was trying to write would not be considered acceptable (the brain-washing had already begun). Consequently I experimented very briefly by writing a couple of semi-atonal pieces. Thankfully the experiment was unsuccessful, but the psychological damage of this new self-conscious awareness would have far-reaching and very negative consequences.

Finally, at the age of 14, I made a ridiculously dogmatic decision to completely stop writing music. I decided my skills lay in performing, not composing, and that I should devote 100% of my energies to improving my piano playing.

By the time I went to music college at 15 these views were even more cemented in my mind. Though I studied composition as well as piano at college I didn’t take my composing seriously anymore. My own sense of self-deprecation was reinforced by my composition professor who, upon examining my youthful piano concerto, declared it to be completely worthless ("what gets me is why you bothered to finish it" were his actual words, forever burned into my memory as he flicked through the pages). So that was that, the decision I had made at 14 to stop composing was given the stamp of approval at college. But here’s a strange thing: notwithstanding my self-doubts, when I played the music written by my contemporaries at college I felt sure that had I stayed with my composing I would have written something better myself, yet oddly this still wasn't enough to push me back into composing. I was in a hyper-critical phase (composers such as Beethoven and Mozart didn't escape my criticism either!). I now realize how wrong I was to make that ridiculous decision at 14, how bad the advice was I received from my professor, and how badly let down I was by all my music teachers at the time. If I could return as my own composition professor it would be so easy to offer the advice and encouragement I so badly needed then. It would be so simple to point out what was good and what was bad in my music, and to show myself how I could fix things and develop what was good – my enthusiasm for music would have made me an excellent pupil. How I would have enjoyed studying carefully the works of the composers I loved (as opposed to the ones I didn't), and I might have been surprised to realize that even the greatest of them had serious doubts about their own abilities.

In my teens and early 20s my prospects as a concert pianist continued to improve with each new success, but all the while, as I grew older, I felt something important was missing. I continued to reassure myself that I just didn't have the talent for writing music. Even so, I started to write down and record any musical ideas I had – what I intended to do with them who knows, for they were just shoved all the way to the back of a cupboard. But one day all that changed: facing a serious identity crisis, I took the plunge and started writing a song. It was my first serious attempt at composition since my 1976 piano concerto 25 years earlier. I took a Christina Rossetti poem ‘Remember Me’ and started trying to fit the words to one of the ideas I had scribbled down and pushed to the back of my cupboard but which always seemed to be in my head. While writing this song something dramatic happened which struck me like a lightening bolt: the more I got into the poem the more I felt I could express the words in my music. I began abandoning my initial idea and just started freely composing. In particular, at the passage that begins at 5:44 on the video below, I suddenly had this extraordinary feeling that the sky was the limit, that I could write ANYTHING. It was just like Elgar had said: “My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require”. This was the trigger that changed my life forever.

[Gibbons: Remember Me Op.12, first performance, February 2001]

But then another momentous event happened. Shortly after completing this piece I was very nearly killed in a serious car accident (in March 2001). If I had died, ironically, this one song of mine would have made a perfect epitaph!

[Newspaper cutting, Oxford Mail, March 2001]

During the long recovery process, when I was unable to play the piano, I became consumed with the urge to continue composing. I launched into song after song and many of my songs from Opp. 15-29 stem from this time, the summer of 2001, including this one.

[Gibbons: The Bourne Op.27, composed June 2001]

Once I recovered from my injuries I resumed my performing career. I was extremely fortunate to be able to return to piano playing considering the severity of my injuries (thanks to the superb treatment I received from the doctors and nurses of the British National Health Service). But now I had a new obsession and a constant desire to get back to composing. I was aware it was a bold, even foolhardy, thing to harbour the thought of abandoning a successful performing career in favour a very uncertain composing career. It didn't help that I still felt very much a novice when it came to composing, with 25 year lost years of not honing my craft! Now my stubbornness, which had been so destructive to my creativity at the age of 14, was working in my favour, as I was determined to write music whatever the cost. And ‘cost’ was certainly something I was forced to consider, as I happily let my earnings disappear in favour of my new found dream. But with every new composition I gained increased confidence, and more and more felt I was making the right decision and moving in a direction that I should have been in 25 years ago.

A few years later another very fortunate turn of events played a big rôle in the direction of my music. While visiting Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia in May 2010, performing an all-Gershwin concert on behalf of a Highlands Scholarship initiative at D&E, part-financed by philanthropist Doris Buffett, I had a series of conversations with the staff of the college. I talked about my ambitions to stay in one place and devote more time to writing music, and to my astonishment the president of D&E, Buck Smith, asked on the 2nd day of my visit if I would consider becoming the college's artist-in-residence. Taking the position would mean an even bigger change of direction in my life: now, in addition to my performing, I would also be expected to write music, which is a very different kettle of fish to writing music when you 'feel like it' (the president had been very taken with some of my own pieces which I had included in my concert at D&E, and was anxious to provide me with an environment that would inspire me to write).

So here I am now, sitting in my study in Elkins, West Virginia, with a beautiful view of the Appalachian mountains from my window, just down a lovely tree-lined road from Davis & Elkins College, which itself has a most scenic and inspiring campus, set in the hills and woods of Appalachia.

[The campus of Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia]

In front of me on my desk are page after page of musical ideas I have been accumulating for the composition of a mass, which I very much hope the D&E choir can one day sing. Unfortunately also in front of me is my waste paper basket, filled to the brim with rejected music sheets. Right now I am staring at an ominously blank page of manuscript paper, and finding other things to do to distract me, such as writing this blog! But it's a great privilege I find myself in now, and one I am determined to make the most of with the production of good music. Only time will tell whether I have justified all the faith that has been placed in me, but I am gradually building a portfolio of compositions, many of which would not exist but for the faith and optimism shown me by the D&E College president Buck Smith. Below is one of those pieces: my Ave Verum Corpus Op.90, written for the 2011 West Virginia Governor’s School for the Arts, an important annual event for encouraging the arts in the youth of West Virginia, which is being held at Davis & Elkins College for the three years 2011, 2012 and 2013.

[Gibbons: Ave Verum Corpus Op.90, West Virginia GSA Choir, first performance, July 2011]

I still feel I have a lot to do to catch up, with all the lost years when I wasn’t writing music. My inexperience seems daunting at times. I often think I need to recalculate my age in terms of years spent writing music, which would make me a young and inexperienced 25 year old composer, rather than an aging 50 year old! Of course I know that nothing worth having or achieving in life is free or comes easily, and the things one works at the most have a wonderful way of rewarding one the most. Reading constantly about composers as I do (I have been enthralled by the lives of the great composers ever since I read my first book on the life of Mozart when I was 11) one thing that I come across again and again is description of just how hard they all worked, even to the point perhaps (in Mozart's case) of working themselves into their graves. Johann Sebastian Bach is quoted as saying: "I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well" (quoted in the earliest biography of Bach, written by Forkel). Chopin’s addiction to work is mockingly described by George Sand in one of her letters when she talks of Chopin not feeling he is working enough unless his back is breaking. Elgar's daughter Carice, writing about her father's life, emphasized just how hard her father worked, a point that she felt many people did not fully appreciate. I truly believe that the difference between the output of people like Bach, Chopin and Elgar and the rest of us is not the result of some magical inspiration from the ether, but largely a matter of perseverance, dedication, and hard work. One only needs to study Chopin’s sketches, those that survived his massive censorship, to see how a seemingly crude or unpromising idea could be gradually transformed into something of great beauty (just as a rough piece of unformed marble is gradually transformed by the wonderful hand of Michelangelo into a breathtaking Pietà). Studying Chopin’s drafts and seeing how he was able to transform his first sketches into great masterpieces has taught me more about composition than anything else I have ever done. It's about not accepting anything you’re not happy with, and never giving up. Of course there is a negative side to this method: if one is not careful one might never finish a single piece of music. Bach and Mozart lived in a different age where people were much less concerned with posterity. Mozart in particular had a laissez-faire attitude and if a piece of music did somehow escape his critical eye he wasn’t one to agonize over it once it was written – he simply moved on to the next piece. That's also something I am trying to learn from, as I pull music sheets out of my waste paper bin and wonder if I should have thrown them away so quickly!

[A playlist of some of my compositions (in reverse chronological order)]

Visit the website of Davis & Elkins College, Elkins, West Virginia

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy birthday Rossini

On Rossini, and his encounters with Beethoven and Chopin...

Today we get to celebrate something we don't often have the chance to: Gioachino Rossini's birthday, born February 29 1792. Rossini had an extraordinary career. During his lifetime he was the most famous opera composer of them all, his heyday being the 1820s. Rossini took early retirement from the operatic world in 1829 at the age of 37, and spent the latter half of his life in both France and Italy.

In April 1822, while visiting Vienna at the height of his fame, Rossini had the opportunity of meeting Beethoven. Rossini was profoundly moved by this encounter and by the impoverished conditions in which the composer was living, which he vividly described: "Ascending the stairs that led to the miserable dwelling which the great man inhabited, it was certainly hard work to control my emotion. When the door was opened, I found myself in a kind of dirty and frightfully disorderly attic. I remember above all that the ceiling, immediately under the roof, was covered from great cracks through which the rain must have poured in. The portraits of Beethoven which we all know entirely reproduce his appearance faithfully enough. But something that none have ever known how to express is the indefinable sadness that emanates from his face, while under the thick eyebrows, in deep caverns, the eyes, though small, seemed transfixed. His voice was sweet and a little veiled." Beethoven (already profoundly deaf) then said (translated from German by Rossini's companion): “Ah, Rossini. So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville. I congratulate you." (The Barber of Seville was at that time a good deal more succesful than Beethoven's own opera Fidelio!). At other times Beethoven had not been so complimentary about Rossini, writing in one conversation book (in 1825): "This rascal Rossini, who is not respected by a single master of his art!" and in another: "Rossini! If Dame Fortune had not given him a pretty talent and amiable melodies by the bushel, what he learned at school would have brought him nothing but potatoes for his big belly."

Several years later Rossini, now retired and living in Paris, met the composer Chopin. Chopin had grown up with Rossini's operas in Warsaw, where they were all the rage in the 1820s. In 1830 Chopin specifically mentions the aria 'Giusto Ciel' when the woman with whom he was madly in love at the time, Konstancja Gładkowska, interpolated it into a performance of the opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).

After his move to Paris Chopin heard many of the world's leading singers, including La Malibran, Lablache and Rubini, in Rossini's operas; Chopin's letters are filled with references to such operas as L'Italiana in Algeri, La Cenerentola, Mosè, Semiramide, Le Comte Ory, Il Turco in Italia, Guillaume Tell, La Gazza Ladra, Maometto II, La Donna del Lago, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Otello, etc.. After Chopin's death, in October 1849, his close friend Wojciech Grzymała movingly described the scene at Chopin's deathbed: "A few hours before he died he [Chopin] asked Mme Potocka to sing three airs by Bellini and Rossini. These she sang, accompanying herself and sobbing, while he listened to them with sobs, and deep emotion, as the last sounds he would hear in this world".

In Rossini's long years of retirement he still composed a little, including the beautiful Petite Messe Solennelle in 1863, written 34 years after his 'retirement' as an operatic composer. With typical humour Rossini wrote on its completion: "Dear Lord – this poor little Mass is finished, Here it is. Have I written sacred music or desecrated music? I was born for opera buffa, as Thou well knowest. A little knowledge, a little heart; that is all. Be therefore blessed and grant me heaven." Of course Rossini was also going directly against Beethoven's advice, who also said to Rossini at their 1822 meeting: "Never try to write anything else but opera buffa [comic opera]; any other style would do violence to your nature."

Rossini's later years were also famous for the musical soirées he held at his Paris home at which he also demonstrated his famous culinary skills, his sharp wit, and his fondness for his pets, including his dog Nini and his parrot Peruche (Peruche's death was commemorated by Charles-Valentin Alkan's witty Rossini parady 'Marcia funèbre, sulla morte d'un Pappagallo' - sometimes translated as 'Funeral March for a Dead Parrot'!).

Rossini died in France in 1868. In his 76 years he had witnessed an extraordinary period in the history of music: born the year after Mozart's death he had outlived not only Beethoven but many composers younger than himself including Schubert and Chopin. It seems extraordinary to think that in 1822 he was still close enough to Mozart's era for Beethoven to specifically ask if Mozart's operas were still being sung in Italy, while the year of Rossini's death saw the first performance of Brahms' Requiem and the first compositions of a 9-year-old Elgar, whose godson I have actually met! Rossini also lived into the era of photography, and there are several fine photographic portraits of the composer, which make fascinating comparison with the many oil paintings done of him before the invention of photography. One thing all the photographic portraits of Rossini reveal is what Beethoven sarcastically described as Rossini’s "big belly"!

Friday, January 27, 2012

In praise of Bach (7)

When posting my 6 previous blogs 'in praise of Bach' I was struck yet again by the frequency of over-the-top phrases spoken through history in praise of the music of this one man:

"one of the most influential works in the history of western classical music"
"a pinnacle of the solo violin repertoire"
"one of the greatest achievements of any man in history"
"one of the most important examples of variation form in music"
"there are many great composers, and then there is J. S. Bach"
"Bach pierces to the heart like no other"
"the greatest artwork of all times and all people"
"some music is so good it needs no introduction"

How can one describe Bach to those who don't know his work? His position in the music world is easy to describe: Bach is frequently compared to Shakespeare in literature. Isaac Newton in science, Michelangelo in art [see the foot of this blog for a recording of one of Bach's most moving choruses (from the St. John passion) combined with a slide show of Michelangelo's incomparable Pietàs]. Revered by all the greatest composers that came after him, even music critics whose daily published opinions reveal their ignorance feel obliged to genuflect in front of Johann Sebastian (if only out of peer pressure). Bach's position in musical history is unassailable, unarguable. I remember, when I was too young to appreciate just who Bach was, a teacher at my school being asked who they thought was the greatest composer of all. A ridiculous question needless to say, but the teacher's answer was immediate: "Bach of course". As a small child I didn't forget that answer because of the confidence of the teacher's response. But how is it that one man could have been so gifted, had so much wisdom and sense of humanity - that's much harder to explain. Listening to the inferior quality of the music written by his own children (some of whom became more famous than their father as composers during their lifetimes) or the poverty of the music by the long line of Bach ancestors who came before him (music was a family business for the Bach's stretching back centuries) doesn't strengthen the argument that it can all be explained by genetics. The composer Walton once quipped that you have to have something truly appalling happen to you in order to write music. Certainly Bach's personal life story is filled with sad events that surely must have deeply affected him: the loss of 11 of his children and the unexpected death, in his absence, of his youthful first wife Maria Barbara. But not every one who has suffered similar tragedies starts writing the most beautiful music of all time. If I could travel in time I would so love to go back 300 years to meet Johann Sebastian - just glimpsing him walking out of his building and perhaps through the neighbouring 'Little Thomas Gate" would leave me in a state of euphoria, let alone hearing him speak, watching him conduct, or best of all being a fly on the wall in his Componierstube (his Composing Study, from where he had views over ornamental gardens and the surrounding countryside) when he was creating his immortal masterpieces! To others who don't understand my passion this might seem as exciting as watching paint dry. To me it's the meaning of life!

Sadly there is only one authenticated picture of the composer (painted in 1746, see above), and one that really doesn't give much away (apart from the bags under his eyes that clearly show a lack of sleep). The description of Bach left by its painter, Elias Gottlob Haussmann, writing of how Bach was in a tremendous hurry and did not want to sit too long for the portrait, says more about Bach than the portrait itself. But there are other written descriptions of Bach that help to shape a clearer portrait of the man, from his children and from his friends, all of whom describe his wonderful humanity, his love for his family, his gregariousness (his son said his house was like a beehive so constantly filled with visitors, and that his presence was always "edifying"), his kindness to those he taught (one pupil writing that he could not adequately describe his excitement when the hands of the composer overlapped with his when being shown a passage on the keyboard), Bach's sense of fun (digging his son in the ribs when listening to a new composer's music and suggesting in a whisper what the piece should do next if the composer was any good), Bach's down-to-earthness (telling someone that his success was due to his industriousness, something anyone else who worked as hard could also achieve). Bach was a stubborn man too, someone who had little patience with unreasoning authority - this attitude frequently got him into trouble from the ignorant and petty-minded officials who had authority over him, and who probably wanted more than anything to take him down a peg or two. Yet for all those ignoramuses there were just as many kind, intelligent and thoughtful friends who loved and appreciated Bach. One ex-pupil recalled years after Bach's death how he had a portrait of Bach on the wall in his house, and how a friend called by and, on seeing the portrait, said words to the effect of "that old bore Bach", this distressing Bach's ex-pupil so much that ever afterwards he always hung the picture facing the wall to prevent anyone else saying an unkind word about a man he clearly adored and of whom he had nothing but the fondest memories.

Perhaps the last words of this short eulogy to J.S. Bach should be left to Johannes Brahms, a man not known for giving empty praise, who wrote the following words to Clara Schumann describing Bach's Chaconne for solo violin: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind".

J.S.Bach's deeply moving final chorus from the St John Passion, conducted by Karl Richter, accompanied in this video by photographs of the Pietàs, drawings and buildings of Michelangelo (1475 - 1564). Pietàs shown include the Pietà from St Peter's Basilica in Rome (1499), the Florentine Pietà (1547 - 1555), Palestrina Pietà (1555, unfinished) and the Rondanini Pietà (1564, his last work, unfinished), as well as the Madonna of Bruges (1501 - 1504).

Pietà from St Peter's, Rome (1499):

Michelangelo was in his early twenties when he completed his most famous Pietà of St Peter's Rome. According to legend he overheard someone praising the work as by another artist so returned to the sculpture and carved his name on it - the only work of his on which he carved his name.

Florentine Pietà (1547 - 1555):

Michelangelo began the Florentine Pietà (also known as 'The Deposition') in his 70s and was originally intending it for his own tomb. Unfortunately the marble he used was faulty, unknown to Michelangelo when he began the sculpture, and it often drew off sparks as he worked. Finally the left leg of Christ broke off while he was working on it. Michelangelo was so furious he attempted to destroy the whole sculpture, beginning with Christ's left forearm and hand and right forearm, but was prevented by his pupils from completing the destruction. It was later repaired and completed by his pupil Tiberio Calcagni - the inferior quality of Tiberio's work is obvious in the finishing of the figure of Mary Magdalene; fortunately Tiberio Calcagni didn't attempt to 'finish' the remaining figures. The tall figure of Joseph of Arimathea (also credited as Nicodemus) is according to legend supposedly a self portrait of Michelangelo himself.

Palestrina Pietà (1555):

The unfinished Palestrina Pietà has no documented history in Michelangelo's lifetime. However it was added to the Michelangelo collection in Florence in 1939. Most likely Michelangelo began the work, and possibly one or more of his pupils attempted more work on it, though it remained incomplete.

Rondanini Pietà (1564):

Michelangelo was apparently working on his last Pietà, the unfinished Rondanini Pietà, only days before he died in 1564, at the age of 89.

Before his death Michelangelo attempted to have all his drawings burnt, regarding them as inferior work, drawn purely for the purpose of preparation for his sculptures and paintings. Fortunately for us Michelangelo was unable to complete the destruction and many of his beautiful drawings (many done in red chalk) have survived.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (6)

The joy of his keyboard music

Since my teens I have had a deep love of Bach's music, and as a pianist have enjoyed playing much of his work, such as the Preludes and Fugues, Partitas and Suites, and the Goldberg Variations. As a young teenager I was also very passionate about the organ and even considered the idea of becoming a professional organist for a while, so naturally I played a large number of Bach's organ works, some of which I have since arranged for the piano. It would have been unthinkable for me not to include the music of Bach in my Queen Elizabeth Hall debut recital in London in 1984, when I played Bach's Goldberg Variations alongside music by Chopin (Funeral March Sonata) and Ravel (Gaspard de la nuit).

Here is a series recordings from my own archives, beginning with the earliest recording I have of my Bach playing. As those of you who have attended my concerts will know, I enjoy talking about music as well as playing it, and in the penultimate video below I give a brief spoken introduction to Bach's Goldberg Variations, followed by an excerpt from the work recorded live at one of my concerts.

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853

Here is Johann Sebastian Bach's incomparable Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853, no.8 from Book One of 'The Well-Tempered Clavier'. This ground-breaking first set of 24 Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys was completed in 1722 and written, in Bach's own words, 'for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study.' Unusually the fugue of this work is written out in D-sharp minor, the enharmonic key of E-flat minor.

J.S.Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat minor, BWV 853, played by Jack Gibbons, recorded live in concert, July 1980, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Gigue from Partita no.4 BWV 828

Bach wrote six Partitas for keyboard, published from 1726 to 1730 (the 4th Partita, the largest of the six, was published in 1728). All six were then published as a set in 1731 under the title Clavier-Übung (or Keyboard Exercise). Eventually Bach would produce four such collections. The title page of the first Clavier-Übung bears the following words of encouragement: ‘Keyboard practice, consisting of Preludes, Allemandes, Courantes, Sarabandes, Gigues, Menuets, and other Galanteries, composed for the agreeable diversion of enthusiasts by Johann Sebastian Bach'.

Gigue from J.S.Bach's Partita no.4 BWV 828, played by Jack Gibbons, recorded live in concert, September 1981, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Prelude and Fugue No.18 in G sharp minor BWV 887

Bach wrote two sets of Preludes and Fugues in all the major and minor keys. They are known collectively as the 'Well-Tempered Clavier', a title Bach used because of the need for a new and more careful tuning system in order for the pieces to work in all 24 keys. This iconic collection is regarded as "one of the most influential works in the history of Western classical music". Many composers, including Beethoven and Chopin, were brought up on the Well-Tempered Clavier, and it is as beloved today as the day the first volume appeared in 1722.

The Prelude and Fugue BWV 887 featured here is from the second set, completed by Bach in 1742. The fugue is known as a double fugue because it has two fugue subjects which in the course of the piece are developed simultaneously (for the layman: it's almost like having two separate pieces which can then be laid on top of each other). As usual Bach's compositional 'sleight of hand' can easily go unnoticed in the general enjoyment of the piece!

On the front page of the first set of Preludes and Fugues Bach wrote out a long and elaborate title, which in full reads: 'The Well-Tempered Clavier, or Preludes and Fugues through all the tones and semitones both as regards the tertia major or Ut Re Mi and as concerns the tertia minor or Re Mi Fa. For the Use and Profit of the Musical Youth Desirous of Learning as well as for the Pastime of those Already Skilled in this Study drawn up and written by Johann Sebastian Bach'. For the second set Bach opted for the shorter title 'Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues'!

Jack Gibbons plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G sharp minor, from 'Das Wohltemperierte Klavier' ('The Well Tempered Clavier') Bk 2, no.18 (BWV 887), recorded live, June 1987, St John's Smith Square, London

J.S. Bach: Gavotte from French Suite no.5 BWV 816

The only manuscript that exists of the erroneously titled French Suites can be found in the Clavierbüchlein of Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena. Bach gave his wife this little instructional music book as a gift soon after their wedding in December 1721. The image of Bach coaching his much younger new bride with simple keyboard pieces (his first wife having died tragically young two years earlier) is a touching one. Listening to these pieces it is easy to imagine a new happiness in Bach's life, and romance that, like everything in Bach's life, revolved around music and his family.

Jack Gibbons plays the Gavotte from Bach's French Suite no.5 BWV 816, recorded live, April 1988, Cheltenham England

J.S. Bach arranged Ferruccio Busoni: Chaconne from Partita no.2 for solo violin BWV 1004

This Chaconne, in its original form, is considered "a pinnacle of the solo violin repertoire" and "one of the greatest achievements of any man in history". Many composers have made arrangements of the work for piano, including Johannes Brahms who wrote of the piece, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind". The Italian composer Busoni, a life-long champion of Bach's music, made his own beautiful arrangement of the work in 1893.

It is thought by some Bach scholars that Bach may have written the work in 1720 as a memorial to his first wife Maria Barbara, who died tragically young at the age of 35.

Jack Gibbons plays Busoni'a arrangement of the Chaconne from J.S.Bach's Partita no.2 for solo violin BWV 1004, recorded live, April 1988, Cheltenham England

J.S. Bach: Partita no.1 BWV 825

In 1726 Johann Sebastian Bach published his Opus 1, the Partita no.1 in B flat BWV 825. Bach dedicated the six movement partita to the new born Prince Emanuel Ludwig (born 12 September 1726), son of his former employer at Cöthen Prince Leopold. Bach clearly retained an affection for the prince and for the happy years spent at Cöthen. He further celebrated the arrival of the prince's new born heir by writing a dedicatory poem to accompany the Partita Opus 1:

Serene and Gracious Prince, though cradle cov’rings deck thee,
Yet doth thy Princely glance show thee more than full-grown.
Forgive me, pray, if I from slumber should awake thee
The while my playful page to thee doth homage own.
It is the first fruit of my strings in music sounding;
Thou the first son round whom thy Princess’s arms have curled.
It shall for thee and for thy honour be resounding,
Since thou art, like this page, a firstling in this world.
The wise men of our time affright us oft by saying
We come into this world with cries and wails of woe,
As if so soon we knew the bitterness of staying
E’en this short time in weary travail here below.
But this do I turn round about, instead proclaiming
That thy sweet childish cries are lovely, clear, and pure;
Thus shall thy whole life be with gladness teeming -
A harmony complete of joys and pleasures sure.
So may I, Prince of all our hopes, e’er entertain thee,
Though thy delights be multiplied a thousandfold,
But let, I pray, the feeling evermore sustain me
Of being, Serene Prince, Thy humblest servant,

1. Praeludium

Jack Gibbons plays the Praeludium from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

2. Allemande

Jack Gibbons plays the Allemande from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

3. Courante

Jack Gibbons plays the Courante from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

4. Sarabande

Jack Gibbons plays the Sarabande from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

5. Menuet I & II

Jack Gibbons plays Menuet I & II from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

6. Gigue

Jack Gibbons plays Gigue from J.S.Bach's Partita no.1, recorded live in concert, Oxford England, 23 March 2005.

An introduction to J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations BWV 988

A short lecture at the piano, recorded in concert, describing the many wonderful aspects of this work of Johann Sebastian Bach, first published in 1741, and which makes up Bach's fourth Clavier-Übung (or Keyboard Exercise).

Jack Gibbons talks about Bach's Goldberg Variations before his performance of the work, recorded in concert, August 2007, Oxford England

J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations part 1, BWV 988

Considered one of the most important examples of variation form in music, Bach published his Goldberg Variations in 1741, under the long heading "Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach, composer for the royal court of Poland and the Electoral court of Saxony, Kapellmeister and Director of Choral Music in Leipzig. Nuremberg, Balthasar Schmid, publisher".

Jack Gibbons plays Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations, part 1 (Aria and Variations 1-15), recorded live in concert, July 1983

Monday, January 23, 2012

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (5)

Two excerpts from J.S. Bach’s St John Passion

1. Chorale: ‘O große Lieb’ (‘O mighty love’)

For Bach it was very important that the music expressed accurately the sentiment of the words that were set. In this short excerpt from the St John Passion (first performed 1724) we hear one of many chorales placed throughout the work that the congregation was possibly expected to join in singing. Bach's sensitivity to the words is very apparent; interestingly the music increases in pathos and anguish with the dissonance Bach uses to express the 'sins' of pleasure and joy but returns to a calmness (albeit of a resigned kind) in reference to the need to suffer for those sins - quite the opposite to how those words would likely be interpreted in music today!

The chorale ‘O große Lieb’ (‘O mighty love’) from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion, performed by the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded 1964). Background images are of the Thomaskirche amd Nikolaikirche in Leipzig, where Bach’s Passions were first performed.

2. Peter's Denial

Recitative: 'Und Hannas..'
Chorus: 'Bist du nicht...'
Recitative: 'Er leugnete aber...'
Aria: '‘Ach, mein Sinn’

In this second excerpt from the St John Passion we hear Bach's extraordinary sensitivity to the text, from the spitefulness of the rabble chorus ('Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?' - 'Aren't you one of his disciples?') to the torment of Peter's mind after his realization of what has just happened ('und weinete bitterlich' - 'and he wept bitterly'). The tremendous emotion of this last recitative passage acts as a spring board into the anguished aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ ('Ah, my soul'), one of Bach's noblest creations. The amazing expressiveness and sensitivity of the music in this aria clearly shows how Bach identified with Peter's condition.

Bach later cut the aria ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ from the St John Passion, presumably because Christian Weise’s words related to text taken from the St Matthew Gospel - in strict Lutheran Leipzig it's inclusion was no doubt seen as a terrible faux pas. However he reinstated it in the work's third and final revision of 1749, the year before his death.

From J.S.Bach's St John Passion: the recitative and chorus leading up to Peter's Denial, followed by the aria "Ah, mein Sinn", performed by Ernst Haefliger and the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded 1964). Background images are of the Thomaskirche amd Nikolaikirche in Leipzig (where Bach’s Passions were first performed) as well as a variety of famous paintings depicting Peter's Denial

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (4)

‎"Bach pierces to the heart": it's a phrase that's regularly encountered describing the incomparable music of Johann Sebastian Bach. One can try to rationalise why this is so, presumably a product of his exceptional genes, and his own life experiences. Reading about Bach's life one is immediately aware that death was a regular occurrence in his immediate family. He outlived 11 of his 20 children, 10 of whom died in infancy:

Johann Christoph (died 23 February 1713, aged 1 day)
Maria Sophia (twin of Johann Christoph, died 15 March 1713, aged 21 days)
Leopold Augustus (died 29 September 1719, aged 10 months and 14 days)
Christiana Sophia Henrietta (died 29 June 1726, aged 3 years)
Ernestus Andreas (died 1 November 1727, aged 2 days)
Christian Gottlieb (died 21 September 1728, aged 3 years)
Christiana Benedicta Louise (died 4 January 1730, aged 4 days)
Christiana Dorothea (died 31 August 1732, aged 1 year)
Regina Johanna (died 25 April 1733, aged 4 years)
Johann August Abraham (died 6 November 1733, aged 3 days)

Another son, Johann Gottfried Bernhard, died at the age of only 24 (27 May 1739), and Bach's first wife Maria Barbara died unexpectedly aged only 35 (7 July 1720).

Whether this terrible toll accounts for the incredible depth and pathos within Bach's music can only be a matter of conjecture, but someone of Bach's intelligence and sensitivity must have undoubtedly lived constantly with mental anguish and pain, out of which his music must surely have provided solace and direction. Karl Richter, the greatest Bach scholar of the 20th century bar none, here conducts Julia Hamari in one of Bach's most moving arias from the St Matthew Passion, the famous song of anguish following Peter's denial: "Erbarme dich" ("Have mercy").

'Erbarme dich' from J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, sung by Julia Hamari with The Munich Bach Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter (recorded May 1971)

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (3)

As someone recently said: "there are many great composers, and then there is J. S. Bach". Bach composed this beautiful aria, "Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" ("Contented rest, beloved inner joy") in 1726. It opens his solo cantata BWV 170. Evidently he had an excellent alto soloist in his choir to be able to devote a whole cantata to one soloist (here it's sung by the incomparable Janet Baker). This poignant cantata was first performed in Leipzig on 28 July 1726, just 27 days after the death of his 3 year old daughter Christiana Sophia Henrietta. One can only imagine the emotions Johann Sebastian and his young wife Anna Magdalena must have been feeling at such a sad time as this wistful song rung out for the first time at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

Janet Baker sings 'Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust' from the Cantata BWV 170 with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Neville Marriner (recorded in London, January 1966)

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (2)

Bach's B minor mass (of which this Agnus Dei is a part) was hailed in the 19th century as "the greatest artwork of all times and all people". To this day it is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest monuments of western culture. The work was completed in 1749, a year before the composer's death, and is one of Bach's last works, though much of the music was written earlier or adapted from his other works. It was not performed in its entirety until over 100 years after Bach's death. In Beethoven's lifetime the work was already so legendary, despite not having yet received any performance, that Beethoven tried twice (unsuccessfully) to acquire a score. This performance, by Janet Baker, is for me one of the most moving.

J.S. Bach's Agnus Dei from his B minor mass, sung by Janet Baker with the New Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Otto Klemperer (recorded October 1967).

In praise of Johann Sebastian Bach (1)

Having used my Facebook music page as a blog for the past year or so I have decided to copy some of those posts to this blog, to make it easier for people to look back over certain subjects, rather than having them lost in the Facebook ether. I will begin with a collection of posts on J.S. Bach, one of my great idols and a key figure in my 'pursuit of happiness'.

Some music is so good it needs no introduction... pure beauty of accompaniment, pure nobility of melody in this extract from Johann Sebastian Bach's secular Cantata BWV 208, composed in 1713. Needless to say I choose my recordings with great care: in the following example we have a truly wonderful rendition by the soprano Gillian Fisher, whose beautiful voice can also be heard, along with that of her husband Brian Kay, on the soundtrack of the 1984 movie Amadeus (in the rôles of Papageno and Papagena).

Johann Sebastian Bach's "Schafe können sicher weiden" (Sheep may safely graze) from his Cantata BWV 208 (composed 1713), sung by Gillian Fisher with the King's Consort conducted by Robert King (recorded 1987).