• BBC Music Magazine ‘The Great Composers’

I don’t have it in for the BBC Music Magazine, I really don’t, even if it sometimes gets its knickers in a twist (last year, the December issue came out in October).  But I can’t help reacting to the special supplement that comes with the current May 2012 issue. Two days ago, I had a long train journey home, so I had plenty of time to read BBC Music Magazine presents The Great Composers.  It doesn’t get off to a good start when the fonts, quill and distressed MS paper are bog-standard code for an outdated perspective on classical music.  The MS paper is so distressed that the staves offer six lines for the price of five (pace any guitar-playing readers).

The big question, however, is raised by the concept.  OK, any compilation of ’50’, ‘100’ or ‘x’ will propose disputable lists, so the compilers (I assume they are plural in this case, though no details are given) are never likely to satisfy the demands of the individual or even of a broader audience.  This particular exercise, whether worthy or foolhardy in intent, seems designed from the cover to appeal to a very basic understanding of greatness, itself a dodgy yardstick.  As to the word ‘essential’, it has been so traduced, not least by Radio 3’s appropriation since its revamp last autumn, that it is now meaningless.  And what exactly is implied by ‘biggest names’?  Biggest in which sense(s)? Is the name now more significant than the music?  Or should I just accept this as inherently empty promotional puff?

Take a look at the nine names that have been highlighted.  Are they ‘in no particular order’, as heard on TV talent shows when they read out stage winners?  The list hardly inspires confidence that the remaining 41 composers will break out from an ultra-safe, tired popular-classics notion of ‘great composers’/’biggest names’. The final information tells us that there’s a ‘Foreword by Katie Derham’.  I always thought that a Foreword was intended to bring new insights, an interesting perspective on what follows.  Not here. Nothing of any substance whatsoever. The two volumes of the child-friendly Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers (1969) were pitched at a higher level.

There is an inevitable discussion to be had on this selection of composers.  There’s hardly a mainstream name that isn’t included, but that doesn’t mean that every one of the 50 is ‘great’.  There are also some threads that skew the selection.  Eight British composers, not including Handel, garner 16% of the total coverage: Britten, Byrd, Elgar, Gibbons, Holst, Purcell, Tallis, Vaughan Williams.  Barber, Bernstein and Copland represent the USA.  In both these cases, and elsewhere, questions can be raised as to the international significance of some of the ‘names’ when set against their compatriots or (near) contemporaries.  There is Gibbons but not Gesualdo, Rimsky-Korsakov but not Mussorgsky, Barber but not Ives.  There’s Grieg and there’s Sibelius, yet no Nielsen.  A slightly desperate case is made for Saint-Säens, partly because of his high standing during most of his lifetime, but of how many other composers could the same not be said?  Notably, none of the Second Viennese School – Schoenberg, Berg, Webern – is represented.

The greatest disparity emerges when considering the number of entries for composers born before 1900 with entries for those born in the 20th century.  There are only five of the latter (10%): Copland (1900), Messiaen (1908), Britten (1913), Bernstein (1918) and Pärt (1935), who is the only living composer among the 50.  I need hardly elaborate on the glaring omissions, such as Ligeti, Lutosławski and Stockhausen among the deceased or Birtwistle, Dutilleux and Reich among the living.  [This observation ties in with the imminent launch of Tom Service’s contemporary music guide at The Guardian online (starts next Monday), with a taster article today ‘The five myths about contemporary classical music’ (what, only five?), which has already elicited a sizeable response.  Definitions of ‘contemporary’ or ‘modern classical’ have been doing the rounds in anticipation; see Tim Rutherford-Johnson‘s short but telling contribution to the debate.]  What is patently clear in The Great Composers is that there is barely any inclusion of music that is more than mildly challenging on a stylistic or (a)tonal level.  The game is given away in the ‘5 Essential Works’ side panel for Bartók: ‘Listeners who fear Bartók’s music may be too astringent for their taste …’.  For heaven’s sake, this is 2012, not 1962 or 1912.

Fortunately, things get better with the 50 composer profiles themselves.  The magazine has called on some of the best English-language writers on music (39 in all), including Nicholas Anderson (Bach, Handel), David Cairns (Berlioz), Misha Donat (Bartók), Erik Levi (Grieg, Shostakovich), Roger Nichols (Debussy), Curtis Price (Purcell) and Michael Talbot (Vivaldi).  Stephen Johnson (Bruckner, Mahler, Schubert) and Bayan Northcott (Haydn, Holst, Wagner) contribute three entries each, while Jessica Duchen writes four (Chopin, Fauré, Liszt, Schumann).  There are some interesting pairings, such as the composers Hugh Wood on Brahms and Colin Matthews on Elgar.

Each entry is c.900-1000 words long, with two summary panels as additional parts of the format: ‘A Life in Brief’ (5 dates) and ‘5 Essential Works’ (each with a recommended recording).  It’s not clear if these panels were written by the named authors.  I rather doubt that the ‘5 Essential Works’ were, as they show a surprising editorial slackness. We learn that there are only preludes in Bach’s ’48’, that Brahms’s Piano Concerto no.2 is ‘deeply humane’ (meaning what exactly?), that Britten was written for the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral, that Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius is ‘operatic rather than a stilted work for the church’, and that the word ‘mixture’ is plural (entry on Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony).  And that’s not to mention clichés such as ‘achingly beautiful’ or slip-ups like ‘paen’ and ‘coersive’.  Sad.

The composer profiles, however, are very readable and range from composer portraits to polemical essays.  Some take a straightforward chronological approach, especially where the pre-1800 composers are concerned.  Some of these are nicely creative, such as John Tyrrell’s opening gambit with an illuminating incident from late in Janáček’s life.  Matthews takes the prize, however, for his opening one-liner: ‘Imagine Elgar without his moustache’.  Some feel that they have a case to make for their subject.  Where Humphrey Burton tries valiantly to persuade us about Bernstein, but doesn’t quite convince, Levi’s entry on Grieg will encourage many to pursue the composer’s music further.

There are essays focusing on reception, such as Cairns on Berlioz, or those that take a main theme and pursue it through selective repertoire.  Stephen Johnson does this with Bruckner (a sense of place), Northcott likewise with Haydn (humour and radicality) and Holst (four reasons for gratitude: ‘music, the Cotswolds, RVW, and having known the impersonality of orchestral playing’).  Christopher Cook muses on Puccini and gender inequality, while Gerald Larner explores arguments about Ravel’s mental condition through a discussion primarily of Boléro and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

For me the star turn is Gerard McBurney’s essay on Tchaikovsky.  Eschewing the chronological, ‘let’s mention the principal works’ approach, McBurney focuses solely on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.6.  He gives a brief but coruscating example of how the composer was viewed in the mid-20th century, following this by tackling the now generally debunked ‘suicide note’ interpretation of the symphony and its finale.  What he brings is real musical evidence (including the sketches), based on Russian folk genres of the melody-lament (he acknowledges Nancy Ries’s work in this field) and the (unrequited) love song.  Together they shape the finale as a ‘love-lament’ (my inverted commas).  McBurney’s entry, although at one end of the spectrum of approaches taken by the 39 authors, is a model contribution and I shall listen to the symphony’s finale with fresh ears.

Editorial concept and execution ✭✭
Individual composer profiles ✭✭✭✭

• Plink-Plonk

Tom Service in his Guardian article today – ‘The five myths about contemporary music’ – referred to a current derisive term for contemporary music, ‘squeaky gate music’.  Does anyone know how long this has been in use? When I was a student, the description ‘plink-plonk’ was the most common, but I don’t know when that started either.* Perhaps someone has already done some research into such terms and their chronology.  I’d love to know more.

Princess Margaret

Thinking about the term ‘plink-plonk’ earlier today, I remembered an incident that occurred when I was working at Radio 3 in the early 1990s.  Each November there is a Festival of Saint Cecilia concert in aid of the Musicians Benevolent Fund.  It is a tradition for a member of the royal family to be guest of honour and to be presented to people involved in the concert beforehand.  I met Princess Anne before the 1991 concert and was also introduced to Princess Margaret the following year (I dug up this photo this afternoon).  I was towards the end of the line and was introduced as the Head of Music at Radio 3.  I bowed obsequiously and crushed her hand.

Princess Margaret, who was the most musical of the royal family, looked me straight in the eye and half-whispered: “Can’t stand it when it’s ‘ding-dong’. Switch off when it’s ‘ding-dong’.”  And with that she moved on.  Only later did it dawn on me that she was referring to ‘plink-plonk’ music on Radio 3.  Perhaps she’d got it muddled up with Leslie Phillips’s famous catchphrase.  By all accounts, she enjoyed a bit of ding-dong herself, as well as gin-gin.  I doubt that she ever drank plonk.


* If you search online for uses of both these terms, they have been appropriated for positive rather than critical purposes:

• www.squeakygate.org.uk is a Cambridge-based charity: ‘Squeaky Gate is an extraordinary and creative charity, empowering people through music and the arts. We deliver a wide programme of live performance, creative training and accredited learning, focusing on producing and performing strong and original work.’
• http://www.plinkplonk.co.uk/ is the website of a harp teacher in Tunbridge Wells.

• Is grey-green the new sepia?

Yesterday, in the local arts centre, I caught up with the most recent Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011).  As The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw put it, it’s ‘cool, temperate’ and understated (except in the overlong opening – and recapitulated – storm-flight sequence).  Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender are credible in age and empathy, though the edginess between them is less pointed than in previous versions (maybe that’s to the good).  It’s beautifully shot, and that led me to ponder on colour tinting in recent period films.

I’m not a film buff nor do I have any technical knowledge, but I’m struck by the overwhelmingly grey-green palette not only of this Jane Eyre but also the three-part BBC TV adaptation of Great Expectations (Brian Kirk, 2011) that went out between Christmas and New Year.  The outdoor visuals were stunning in both, but those in Great Expectations were outstanding: the marshes, the Thames, the London streets.  In Jane Eyre they were picturesque rather than threatening (rather like the film itself), while in Great Expectations the tension was ratcheted up by the half-lights.  In both films, facial expression was often more telling than the spoken word.  In Great Expectations, young Pip (Oscar Kennedy) was extraordinarily powerful in this regard.

Why this muted colour trend, if it is one?  It appears to be reaching for some imagined period authenticity, as if viewed through gauze (I think ‘scrim’ is the technical term).

Is grey-green the new sepia, an automatic ageing device, giving a mixture of distance and comfort?  It’s hard to believe that life in 19th-century Britain was so lacking in saturated colours.

The poster montage for Great Expectations, for example, implies that the film is the equivalent of old-fashioned, colour-tinted black-and-white photos.  To a large extent it is, yet somehow it doesn’t seem dated.

Are we, perhaps, heading towards the return of black-and-white movies, even silent ones?  The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011) suggests that this might be so.  I hope it reaches these here parts soon!

• ‘The Pianist’ (b. 5.12.1911) and his Red Bus

Thanks to an alert last night from a friend in Warsaw, I was reminded that today marks the centenary of the birth of Władysław Szpilman (1911-2000). Szpilman was well-known in Poland from the 1930s as a fine concert pianist and as a composer of concert music and popular songs, especially after World War II.  He recounted his extraordinary survival of the war in his memoir Śmierć Miasta (Death of a City).  The memoir was republished in English as The Pianist shortly before his death and turned into an award-winning, internationally popular film of the same title by Roman Polański (2002), with Adrien Brody playing the lead role.

I once sat behind the quiet, elderly Szpilman at a concert in Warsaw.  I regret not speaking to him.  Later, I wanted to reproduce the opening page of one of his songs – Jak młode Stare Miasto (Like The Young Old Town, 1951) – in my book Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge, 2005).  But permission was refused by his family as they thought that some of his songs were not representative of his talents (and also perhaps because 1951 was the height of the socialist-realist push in the arts). Yet this hugely popular song had already been released on CD (‘Golden Hits of Socialism’ [!], Intersonus ISO84).  Such is the unpredictability of copyright permission.

In 2000, Polish Radio issued a 5-CD set of Szpilman’s performances and compositions (PRCD 241-245):

• CD 1: 19 songs (1952-91).
• CD 2: Szpilman as pianist – including in his own Concertino (1940), Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1954), Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major (1960) and two pieces by Chopin, including the Nocturne in C# minor (1980) with which he both closed Polish Radio broadcasts in 1939 and reopened them in 1945.
• CD 3: Szpilman as a member of the Warsaw Quintet – piano quintets by Brahms and Schumann (1963-65).
• CD 4: Szpilman with Bronisław Gimpel (who also led the Warsaw Quintet) – violin sonatas by Brahms (no.3), Grieg (no.3) and Franck (1958-65).
• CD 5: songs for children including three extended ‘musical fairytales’ (1962-75).

One of Szpilman’s most popular songs was Czerwony Autobus (The Red Bus, 1952).  The recording on CD 1 above is particularly fine, not least because of its sense of good humour, considerably aided by Szpilman’s own swinging piano.  Search it out if you can.  That recording was made by the best close-harmony male-voice quartet of the time, Chór Czejanda (Czejanda Choir).  They also made another, longer recording with dance orchestra.  In the YouTube video below (Legendy PRL: Legends of the Polish People’s Republic), this audio recording is accompanied by shots of Warsaw buses in various ‘picturesque’ locations of the post-war socialist capital.  I’ve put my translation of the first three verses below.  Enjoy!


When at dawn I run like a wind through the streets,
The city like a good friend welcomes me,
And – honestly – I wish you all such happiness
As every day gives me in Warsaw.

On board, please!  No-one will be late for work,
We will go quickly, even though we’re surrounded by a forest –
A forest of scaffolding, which really does mean
That here time does not stand still.

The red bus rushes along my city’s streets,
Passes the new, bright houses and the gardens’ cool shade.
Sometimes a girl will cast us a glance like a fiery flower.
Not only ‘Nowy Swiat’* is new – here each day is new.

* ‘New World’, a beautiful old street in Warsaw, reconstructed after the war.  It appears at 2’01” in the video above.

[For more information, go to http://www.szpilman.net/]

• Radio 3 – Hear and Now Fifty

Well, you can see from the preceding post Toothless, Lame and Lazy that I get hot under the collar about all this celebrity endorsement.  It’s as if programme makers (or more likely their executive seniors) don’t believe that music can stand up for itself.  You can imagine my horror when I heard a few days ago about the celebrity component planned for a Radio 3 bastion of musical self-sufficiency, Hear and Now.

This strand, under different titles, has long stood up for contemporary musical creativity.  It’s always been forward-looking, innovative, challenging.  I reported on a characteristically intriguing edition last month (Sit, Stand, Walk).  But even Hear and Now has not been able to resist the pressure to make an ‘essential collection’, the Hear and Now Fifty.  It’s going to be 50 works from 50 years (1950-99) chosen by 50 ‘figures from the worlds of new music and the arts’.  I wonder what the strand’s successor collection will be called next September, because once you’ve started down this path there’s no going back.

As usual, the promotional material has its own brand of tosh: ‘This rich legacy can now be viewed without the prejudices and barriers that dogged its perception at the time’.  Excuse me?  ‘Viewed’?  ‘Dogged’?  ‘Its (the legacy’s?) perception’?

Are we to understand that we are equally distant in time, prejudices and barriers from a work composed in 1999 as we are from one written in 1950?  Have the 50 pieces therefore been chosen for their revisionist potential?  And what about being dogged by today’s prejudices and barriers?

At least it looks as if the ‘50’ will not take over the whole programme each week, which leaves Hear and Now free to continue to pursue its traditional targets.  My initial horror is somewhat lessened by the range, calibre and potential of the creative input from the ’50 figures’.  The first batch looks like this:

17 Sept.    Steve Reich: Different Trains (1988), with electronic music producer Matthew Herbert
24 Sept.    György Ligeti: Atmospherès (1961), with film maker Sophie Fiennes
1 Oct.        Elliott Carter: String Quartet no.3 (1971), with novelist Mark Haddon
8 Oct.        Pierre Boulez: Le marteau sans maître (1955), with composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle

Thereafter we are promised:

Louis Andriessen: De Staat (1976), with composer Michael van der Aa
Iannis Xenakis: Nomos Alpha (1966), with Marcus du Sautoy (again)
Cornelius Cardew: The Great Learning (1970/72), with pianist John Tilbury
John Cage: 4’33” (1952), with artist Tacita Dean
Edgard Varèse: Poème electronique (1958), with composer Tyondai Braxton
Morton Feldman: Extensions 3 (1952), with composer Howard Skempton.

Further, incomplete details indicate that the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson will introduce something by Milton Babbitt, Kronos’s leader David Harrington will introduce George Crumb’s Black Angels (1970), and that Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen (1957) and Toru Takemitsu’s score for the film Kwaidan (1964) will also feature.

It will be interesting to see what the remaining pieces will be.  If Hear and Now is intent on creating a specific canon, how much editorial control has been applied to the repertoire to shape this canonicity?    And how many of the composers and pieces will be as unestablished or ‘non-core’ as in the programme’s habitual focus?  The answer to this last question is particularly key.  If the majority of the ’50’ are of the ‘classic’ status of most of the first ’10’ above, then they will sit awkwardly within the current experimental ethos of this strand, although I can see that they might well have been in the strand had it been running that long ago (there’s a musical-historiographical agenda here).  On the other hand, each ‘1’ may provide an interesting context for the ‘now’ pieces that happen to be in its particular edition of ‘Hear and Now Fifty’.  So there is potential in these juxtapositions; they won’t necessarily be safe.  I’m coming round to the idea.

Hang on a minute.  If each week’s Hear and Now is losing a good proportion of its airtime to these ‘50’, doesn’t that mean that its core mission has been irrevocably diminished?  That is hugely to be regretted.  Why didn’t Radio 3 instead extend its new titling fixation and create a third, contemporary, ‘Classics’ programme that would complement Hear and Now rather than steal from it?

It is, however, a sad sign of our times that most of these ‘50’ works are unlikely to be heard ever again on Radio 3.  So catch them while you can.  You can subscribe to the podcast introduction here –Radio 3’s Fifty Modern Classics (oh, so there is a ‘Modern Classics’ strand – I thought we’d lost it).

Essential Classics anyone?
Saturday Classics – anyone there?
• ‘Modern Classics’ 1-50, and counting?


The first edition of Hear and Now Fifty has just finished.  The 1/50 came at the end.  First were three pieces from the 41st Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Under its originator and artistic director, John Metcalf, it has moulded a niche for itself by focusing exclusively over the past 20 years on music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on minimalism and on Australian and Eastern European music especially.  Although it is a small event – five concerts in five days – it punches above its weight, thanks largely to links and reciprocal arrangements built up over many years.

Three pieces were broadcast last night, all from the concert given on 8 September by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jean-Michaël Lavoie: Metcalf’s Three Mobiles (with Gerard McChrystal, soprano sax), Mark Bowden’s Lyra (Cello Concerto, with Oliver Coates), and Qichang Chen’s Wu Xing (Qichang Chen was the Music Director of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics – his ‘eclectic music will feature strongly in future Vale of Glamorgan Festivals’).

Three Mobiles seemed to have sprung from harmless, mainly American musical idioms current 80 years ago: eloquent, sweet-toned but anachronistic.  The third mobile began with some minimalist patter, but soon reverted to type, with a Coplandesque Hoe-Down threatening to burst out.  Mobility didn’t seem to come into it, certainly not from the perspective of Stockhausen’s Piano Piece XI (1956) or Serocki’s A piacere (1963).

Lyra is a more persuasive work.  With inspiration drawn first from the character ‘Lyra’ in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, plus subsequent links with other meanings of the word (a constellation of stars, a small bass viol, a class of Soviet nuclear submarines), Bowden has fashioned a 20’, one-movement cello concerto by intermingling material from his initial three-movement plan, ‘Vega’, ‘Ayre’ (‘Air’?) and ‘Crushed Depth’.  The soloist spends much of the time in its high register against a busy and sustained orchestral backdrop.  The lyrical element is therefore very much to the fore, with little concertante interplay in the sense of actively working with or against the orchestra.  There are passages of frenetic movement, but no substantial interest in any real dialogue between cello and orchestra.  For most of the time, Bowden seems to hear the soloist as a textural and voluble primus inter pares.  Fifteen minutes in, the strings declaim a modern twist on the idea of a chorale theme and a more motivated and obviously co-ordinated section develops, driving both soloist and orchestra to a powerful climax before they separate again onto parallel tracks in the dying moments.

Wu Xing concerns the Chinese concept of the elements – they have five, not four: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.  Qichang Chen, who studied with Messiaen and has lived in Paris for almost 20 years, was apparently interested in the ways in which these elements could transform into each other.  The score is deliciously fluid, sometimes bearing the hallmark of his teacher, sometimes proving timbrally elusive and more ethnically Chinese.  Its five movements seem to live on the edge, taking unexpected detours, but always convincing in their journey.  He really understands the sonority of the orchestra and the value of material contrasts as well as continuities and the flexibility and balance of tempi.  Alluring, and the clear highpoint in this first of two Hear and Now broadcasts from this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival (next week: Steve Reich’s City Life from the same BBC NOW concert).

And so to the first of the ‘Modern Classics’: Reich’s Different Trains.  It occupied 35 of the programme’s 90 minutes, so over 1/3rd.  That’s 1/3rd lost to the core function of Hear and Now.  I don’t need to add my penny’s worth to the existing discourse on this piece, so what did Matthew Herbert and one of the series’s resident pundits Gillian Moore have to add that was new to the discourse?  Not much, in truth, though they did it in an engaging and intelligent manner.   They spoke over excerpts from the piece, separately and alternately, describing what they each heard as key features.  Reich himself made a brief and telling appearance at the very end.  It was a nicely edited nine and a half minutes.  Ideal podcast material.

But not a whisper about prejudices or barriers having dogged people’s perception in 1988 or since.

I return to my main concern.  Is this the best place to do this, at the expense of the coverage of music being written today?  I hope that Radio 3 will think that this format – a podcast introduction followed by a recording – is worth its own programme slot in a year’s time, called, if it must, Modern Classics.  That would allow Hear and Now to devote its full 90’ to contemporary music of today.

• Toothless, Lame and Lazy

This post was originally the first half of Radio 3 – Hear and Now 50 (the next post in the sequence).

BBC Radio 3 tried to persuade me to listen to a programme yesterday afternoon by informing me that it was to be presented by the country’s “best-loved choirmaster, Gareth Malone”.  Or so the M&S-style voice said.

Tell me, who writes this meaningless crap?  By what yardstick is Gareth Malone ‘our’ best-loved choirmaster?  Who decided that a choirmaster had to be loveable anyway?  Was there a poll that I missed?  Or is this just slack speak for “most-frequently-seen-on-BBC2-TV choirmaster”?  There is a difference, you know.  I can’t believe for one minute that this appropriation of simplistic advertising jargon attracts anyone, except Gareth Malone fans who are, by definition, already in love with him.  Watch it, Gareth.  Radio 3 promotion is lumping you together with CDs of best-loved melodies and anthologies of best-loved hymns.  Is that really where you want to be?

The programme?  Another stunningly inventive title from Radio 3 – Saturday Classics.

Saturday Classics

Malone’s theme over this and his next three programmes is ‘musical youth’.  I hope that this develops as a more meaningful connective tissue than it did yesterday.  First we had Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro, included because it was a good example.  Of what?  Because it was written when he was 30?  Then three excerpts from Vivaldi’s Gloria, simply because Malone’s mother used to play it to send him to sleep when he was young.  Ah, bless.  Then a story about unborn children being able to hear (hardly breaking news), about a singer rehearsing Aida while pregnant, etc..  Cue a chorus from – yes, you’ve guessed it.  The background to Elgar’s Dream Children was more interestingly told, but just because Chopin, like Mozart, was an infant prodigy hardly justifies playing his ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, composed when he was almost 30.  You could take any composer by this method, play a piece composed at that age, and claim a connection with ‘musical youth’.

And so it continued.  It was mild, comforting, thoroughly unchallenging musical fare, suitable for anyone without teeth.  In short, it was lame.  Malone ended with the phrase “I hope you enjoyed today’s romp through musical youth”.  Give me strength.

I just hope that future four-week presenters bring a bit more bite, insight and robustness to their themes (if they have to have them).  And that we get less standard fare.  We’re promised Simon Russell Beale, John Wilson and Alison Balsom, so let’s not give up quite yet.

The mania for ‘personal’ programming is getting thoroughly tiresome.  Whichever way you look at it, it’s a largely spurious approach to music.  If our ‘guide’ is strong, we remember his or her character and history rather than the music, which is incidental to such formats.  If weak, then the off button is suddenly very attractive.  It’ll be off for me on the next three Saturday afternoons.  What a relief it was to hear Geoffrey Smith at 17.00: a relaxed, cheery ‘HaLLO’, insightful commentary and a focus on the music.

Essential Classics

This juror is out with regard to another ‘Classics’ programme – Radio 3’s weekday morning sequence Essential Classics, whose title I lambasted two weeks ago.  It began inauspiciously last Monday with an instantly forgettable Czech composer and music (Oskar Nedbal’s Dance of the Brigands).  Its main ‘slot’ (after 11.00 each day) was worth hearing, however, not least because I trust Rob Cowan’s knowledge of recordings to provide interesting performances.  I’m far less convinced by the daily guest input.  This week the guest was the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, next week it’s a gardening expert called Rachel de Thame.  Poor souls, they’ve had to fill out a questionnaire in preparation.  Have a look at these twenty questions and ask yourself a simple one in return: will the ‘piece’ itself be enhanced by knowing that someone else chose it for one of these reasons?

1.    What was the first piece of classical music you can remember hearing?
2.    What piece first stimulated your interest in classical music?
3.    What was the first classical record/CD you bought yourself?
4.    Do you have a favourite performer, and what piece would you choose to hear him/her/them play?
5.    If you could choose to be a virtuoso on any instrument, what would it be, and what piece would you like to play?
6.    Is there a piece you can play, or would like to play yourself?
7.    Do you have a favourite composer – and a favourite piece by him/her?
8.    What piece of music do you use to relax to?
9.    What piece of music makes you glad to be alive?
10.    What piece of music would you listen to on a journey (car/train/plane)?
11.    Is there a piece that you find particularly moving?
12.    Is there a piece that reminds you of a particular place?
13.    Is there a piece that makes you laugh?
14.    Can you work while listening to music, and what piece would you choose, and why?
15.    If you are entertaining friends, is there a particular piece you would put on?
16.    Is there a piece that you think should be more widely known – a hidden gem?
17.    Is there a piece of film or TV music that has particularly affected you?
18.    If you could step back in time to hear a great performer who’s no longer with us, who would it be, and what piece would you choose to hear?
19.    If we gave you an orchestra/choir/soloists, what piece would you choose to conduct?
20.    What piece of music do you want played at you funeral/to be remembered by?

In some cases, the answer might be yes (nos 16 and 18), something interesting about the music might emerge.  Some are downright idiotic (the ludicrous no. 9).  Most are intrusive and only interesting if you are interested in the person making the choice.  In other words, their answers are intrinsically a reflection on themselves (Desert Island Discs syndrome) rather than on the music.  Private Passions it ain’t, just a feeble imitation.  Or turn the process on its head. How many of the questions would fit the choice, say, of Bartók’s Fifth String Quartet or Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, both of them works which have long been regarded as part of the canon of 20th-century classical music.  According to this questionnaire, I very much doubt that they are ‘essential’ any more.  I hope that I am confounded.

How about creating an alternative questionnaire?  Here are a few suggestions to start with:

1a.    What is the last piece of classical music you listened to?
2a.    What piece of classical music can’t you stand?
3a.    What was the first piece of music that you downloaded legally/illegally?
etc. …

Given that guests are likely to have achieved eminence in their field, just one question might have sufficed instead of the lazy twenty above: ‘What music has stimulated your own creativity?’.

• Conundrum – When Does ‘Late’ Mean ‘Early’?

Talking about the dead is fraught with difficulties, dressed up in all sorts of niceties.  We seem to have gone past phrases like ‘the dear departed’, but we still cling to euphemisms whenever possible (dead parrot, anyone?).  But ‘the late’ sticks around.  Why?  To remind us of a recent death, in case we’d forgotten?  Or in case we hadn’t realised that he or she had ‘left us’ in the first place?

I was set yesterday to musing (well, frankly, fuming) on the general idiocy of ‘the late’.  It seems to have no boundaries or rationale.  In its most vacuous incarnation it has the urge to alliterate – ‘the late, great’.  Aaagh.  Taking purely musical examples, I can just about understand why the singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (1954-2006, aged 52), on the left, is still referred to on the radio as ‘the late’.  It’s harder to comprehend why presenters feel it necessary, as they still sometimes do, to talk of another soprano, Arleen Auger (right), as ‘the late’.  She died 18 years ago (1939-93, aged 53).

What took the biscuit for me was listening yesterday morning to the first edition of BBC Radio 3’s new morning programme Essential Classics.  Rob Cowan, whom I like and respect as a presenter, referred to the early-music pioneer, David Munrow, as ‘the late’.  Well, honestly.  That’s ridiculous.  He died 35 – yes, 35 – years ago (1942-76, aged 34).  What can ‘the late’ possibly signify?

It seems to me that there’s a prolonged whiff of undue sentimentality, bordering on mawkishness.  The past tense surely suffices and nothing else.  Benjamin Britten (1913-76, aged 63), who died in the same year as Munrow, lost the label long ago.  I wouldn’t dream of saying ‘the late Witold Lutosławski’ (1913-94, aged 81) – and he died less than a year after Arleen Auger.  I wouldn’t even use it when speaking about Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010, aged 76), who died ten months ago yesterday.

It’s noticeable that all three of these ‘late’ musicians were performers, not composers, and all died ‘before their time’ (two of cancer, one by suicide).  Has ‘late’ therefore come to mean ‘too early’?  I suspect so, but did people in 1863 still refer to Schubert (1797-1828, aged 31) as ‘the late’?  Or talk likewise, in 1915, about Henryk Wieniawski (1835-80, aged 44)?  I hope that devotees of Maria Callas (1923-77, aged 53) no longer apply it to their ‘dear departed’.  Somehow I fear that they do.

Should there be a statute of limitations?  Ten years?  Five years?  Six months?

Or why don’t we just have done with it and abolish it altogether?  Better never than ‘late’.

• Stealin’ Apples

A variety of searches has led to today’s seasonal post.  Following up last month’s excerpt from John Clare’s A Shepherd’s Calendar (about a boy nicking fruit from orchards in the dead of night) and thinking about Eddie Condon’s career after recording The Minor Drag with Fats Waller, I’ve come up with this.

Consider the situation.  You’ve been asked to put together a new Encyclopaedia of Music with some crusty old professors.  Then someone tells you that there’s a new type of music that you must include in the book.  But you know nothing about it.  What do you do?  Simple.  Get involved with an attractive young night-club singer who knows about such things and who’s wanted by the police about her gangster boyfriend.  Of course, you must invite some of the practitioners of this new-fangled music to play some of it for you.  Imagine Grove 6 inviting the Sex Pistols around for tea and crumpet.

Then you film the results for international distribution.  Absurd?  Well, it’s been done.  Danny Kaye (Professor Hobart Frisbee!) and Virginia Mayo (Honey Swanson) are the acting stars in A Song Is Born (Howard Hawks, 1948).  And the musicians?  None other than Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell and Benny Goodman (‘disguised’ as Professor Magenbruch).

These last three star in the scene above (with the other two contributing to the introductory dialogue), rather archly set-up and hammed it’s true (watch the stop-time …), but it’s a brilliant performance of Fats Waller’s song Stealin’ Apples (1936).  There’s some great playing by Powell on piano and especially by Hampton on vibes.  It fair jingles along.

There are many other performances out there of this song.

• Benny Goodman’s performance in Los Angeles in 1961 of Fletcher Henderson’s 1936 arrangement is smooth, zippy, though the sound quality is poor in places; there are also some interesting audience shots <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evS47squKmM>
• Eddie Condon recorded it a year later in a TV studio with his All Stars septet, giving even greater prominence to the clarinettist (Peanuts Hucko) than in the other two videos <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NKFEm9Qd1w>.

Thanks to enquiries made by Nancy Giffin, Bill Haesler and Adrian Ford, it’s also possible to bring you Andy Razaf’s lyrics, although it appears that Stealin’ Apples has never been recorded in its song form.

I was always taught that it was wrong to be a thief.
He who took his neighbour’s good would surely come to grief.
There’s exceptions to the tune I guess,
What I used to take brought happiness.

Apple time was always time for stealin’,
Just to be with you was so appealin’
Takin’ chances
Stealin’ apples with you.

We would wait and catch the farmer nappin’,
In his orchard anything could happen,
Takin’ chances,
Stealing apples with you

I could hardly wait until you would bite one,
For it meant a kiss if it was the right one.
What a joy dear, it would be,
If I could find myself once more back in wildwood,
Takin’ chances,
Stealin’ apples with you.

• Charles Trenet in ‘Cavalcade des heures’

Following on from yesterday’s ‘What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?’, I thought I’d point up one of the delights of ‘inessential’ revelations in Classical Collection which I caught two years ago.  I think it was Rob Cowan who played Mam’zelle Clio, sung by Charles Trenet.  I fell for its joie-de-vivre and humour straightaway and immediately ordered CDs and sheet music.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Here was a singer and composer with a very special talent to amuse, à la français, bien sûr (he was known as ‘le fou chantant’), as well as to pull on the strings of sentiment.  I knew La Mer, his greatest international hit, but nothing else.  Thank you, Rob Cowan.  May you continue to throw unexpected, non-mainstream and ‘inessential’ items into the mix of your new programme, whatever its title.

I’m attaching two contrasting clips from a film Trenet appeared in when he was turning 30, La Cavalcade des Heures (Yvan Noé, 1943).  In the first, he doesn’t sing on screen, but listens to a 78 of a song that he co-wrote and recorded a year earlier, Que reste-t-il de nos amours?.  Its mood is suitably seasonal: ‘Tonight, the wind that knocks on my door/talks to me of dead loves/in front of the fire which is going out.  Tonight, it’s a song of autumn/in the house that shivers/and I think of distant days.  [Refrain] What is left of our loves?/What is left of those fine days?/A photo, old photo/of my youth. …’  You may recognise the melody, which was reused for I Wish You Love and recorded by Marlene Dietrich, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart and others.  But nothing beats Trenet’s understated original.

The second clip shows Trenet singing a very different song, in his trademark trilby.  Débit de l’eau … Débit de lait is one of his most popular in France, mainly because of its clever and delightfully whimsical lyrics and tongue-twisting patter.  The refrain includes lines such as:

Ah qu’il est beau, le débit de lait, Ah qu’il est laid, le débit de l’eau
Débit de lait si beau, débit de l’eau si laid
S’il est un débit beau, c’est bien le beau débit de lait.
Au débit d’eau y a le beau Boby, Au débit d’lait y a la bell’Babée …

Here’s a resumé of the main threads of the story: two shops (débits) in the street, one ugly (laid) selling water (l’eau), one pretty (beau) selling milk (lait); Boby sells the water, Babée the milk.  They don’t get on and quarrel over the churns (bidons).  But they get married; Boby puts milk in his water and Babée puts water in her milk.  And Boby makes sure he keeps pretty Babée’s two best churns of milk for himself (Oui mais Boby garde pour lui Les deux plus beaux bidons de lait de la Babée jolie) …

• What Are You Up To, Radio 3 – Essentially?

Oh dear, Auntie Beeb is at it again.  She’s asking us to sit comfortably in our antimacassar Queen Anne chairs, our tooth mug by our side and a cup of … well, you get the picture.  Welcome to Radio 3’s new morning ‘not-drive-time’ replacement for Classical Collection.  With its aura of chocolate boxes and nice gift shops, that title wasn’t much to shout about either.  Now, make way for … (‘Drumroll’, among other symphonies) … Essential Classics.

What a stroke of genius.  It’s fresh, original, unforgettable.  Others will soon catch on, mind.  I can see the future: fascinating CDs and downloads called Essential Vivaldi, Essential Mozart, Essential Mendelssohn.  We might even get, wait for it, Essential Ravel or Essential, Essential Classics.  And, dare I think the unthinkable?  How about Essential World Music or Essential Classic Jazz (a double hit there, surely)?

Say the word over and over and it becomes meaningless.  Actually, it’s pretty meaningless anyway.  Essential for whom, for what?  I believe that the title is nothing but a cynical ploy to be seen to try to attract less-demanding listeners.  Are radio listeners that dumb?  Radio 3 has a robust following, so does it think that its survival depends on some putative untapped constituency with few musical brain cells between the ears?  Seriously, who these days is going to be won over by such a title?  Not the younger listener, that’s for sure.  In any event, I don’t think that Radio 3 really believes in titles like this.  Classical Collection frequently goes beyond expectations, so why shouldn’t Essential Classics?  It had jolly well better do, otherwise it will lose listeners.

There is so much twaddle that accompanies schedule changes.  Radio 3 says: ‘The extended length of this programme will allow for longer pieces of repertoire to be played and will include, for example, a performance of the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation’.  To take the latter point first: Classical Collection presents the complete ‘Building A Library’ recommendation already – so what’s new?  As to ‘longer pieces of repertoire’, there are plenty of examples in recent Classical Collection playlists of works lasting 20’-30’.  Less than two weeks ago, it  broadcast Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony, which comes in at c. 50’.  So another piece of promotional tosh.

Yet there may be hope for those of us who like a challenge or something ‘inessential’ in our morning (or anytime) listening.  I’m thinking of a wonderful use of my least favourite word in the marketing of an Olympia CD back in 1993.  It was of music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (OCD 385) and was clearly piggybacking on the phenomenal international success of Elektra Nonesuch’s CD the previous year of the Pole’s Third Symphony, ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).

What better way to encourage sales than by calling the CD  The Essential Górecki Orchestral and Choral Music.  Recordings Selected by the Composer?  Brilliant.  Though I’m damn sure that Górecki didn’t choose the headline title.  Pity the poor enthusiast for the Third Symphony who bought this CD expecting more of the same, because isn’t that what was being implied?  If the enthusiast listened to music from the comfort of a well-upholstered and well-protected armchair, then a life-threatening shock was in store.

Why?  Because the five works on The Essential Górecki were nothing like the Third Symphony.  There was the terse, Webernian Epitafium (1958), the explosively avant-garde Scontri (Collisions, 1960), the gritty Genesis II (1962), the Messiaenic Refrain (1965) and the modal v. serial-atonal Old Polish Music (1969).

If, on the other hand, the listener was open-eared, unconcerned with mantras about ‘core repertoire’, a wonderful, mould-shattering surprise awaited.  Because, to appropriate the word ‘essential’, this music from 1958-69 was and is representative of the composer’s creative drive and imagination and an essential component in an understanding of his musical journey.

Olympia’s marketing was either a cynical move or an inspired hijacking – of a stale, tired, forgettable term – whose subversive intention was to stimulate individual hearing buds and catch the listener unawares.  If that’s what Radio 3 has in mind for Essential Classics, but isn’t telling, than hurrah for that.

Listen out from 9 a.m. on Monday, 12 September.

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