Sunday, 6 January 2013

Mortuos Plango

Since I've been away, what a lot of bad news has afflicted the world of classical music!

The death of my favourite writer about classical music, Charles Rosen, has been one blow. Mr. Rosen wrote the highly influential The Classical Style and, even more remarkably, that paean to Chopin, Schumann & Co, The Romantic Generation. Sonata Forms, Critical Entertainments and Piano Notes were other books that took pride of place on my bookshelf. No one could write so compellingly about music and his loss is a great pity.

Mr. Rosen was, among other things, a long-term champion of Elliott Carter, America's doughtiest upholder of modernist virtues, who sadly passed away at the age of 103 towards the close of 2012. It was becoming easy to believe that Mr. Carter was going to go on forever but, alas, even Elliott Carter proved mortal. One of my favourite essays of Charles Rosen recounted his experience of rehearsing a performance of one of Elliott Carter's most richly complex scores, the extraordinary Double Concerto for harpsichord, piano and orchestra of 1959-61. One story in particular stuck in my head, telling of a 'dead' performance of the piece by a BBC orchestra headed by a leader with a grudge against modernist music - someone who, incidentally, also sabotaged a performance of Michael Tippett's invigorating Second Symphony. Such behaviour by a professional musician is truly astonishing, but it happened - and may still be happening. 

The performance of the Double Concerto linked to above featured Charles Rosen on piano. It is best heard through headphones, so that you can appreciate the sonic effects Elliott Carter intended his audience to hear. The work is in three movements. The outer movements are tumultuous but the central movement is a beautiful, relatively calm piece of writing. The play of contrasting speeds is at its easiest to hear in that movement, as fleet-footedness arises again out of serene, Unanswered Question-like music at the movement's heart. 

What is so impressive about Elliott Carter's music from this period is the sheer love and attention to detail he brought to each of his pieces. You are hearing works that took years to finesse into what their composer felt satisfied was precisely what he wanted to say. Every note and gesture, however hard to place on first hearing, is exactly where it should be, doing exactly what the composer intended it should do. There is nothing casual about the music, however freely-imagined it may sound. You can trust its composer - even if you don't trust yourself.

I've listened repeatedly to the Double Concerto since hearing the sad news of Mr. Carter's death and the work's wonderfulness has become ever more apparent on each listen. I'd never dared listen to it prior to his death. It's over-stated reputation for complexity had put me off. Now I can't think why. 

I'll write a most thorough-going appreciation of Elliott Carter shortly, but please try that Double Concerto and see what you make of it. One listen will not be enough though. Please give it a few goes.

Other composers have passed away too. Jonathan Harvey, about whom I wrote appreciatively on a couple of occasions, died in December. His masterpiece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, a dizzyingly beautiful electronic fantasy on the sound of his own son's singing and the bell of Winchester Cathedral, remains a favourite of mine. Mr. Harvey's music could be daunting in its modernist aesthetic (String Quartet No.4) or direct in its Anglican traditionalism (Missa Brevis) but it was always driven by a  highly discerning ear. For something in between the two extremes of his art, please try his 1971 Piano Trio

We've also lost two composers who straddled the divide between classical music and jazz, Dave Brubeck and Richard Rodney Bennett. Dave Brubeck, famous for such masterpieces as the 5/4-time Take Five and the 2+2+2+3/3+3+3 time Blue Rondo a la Turk, was a lover of classical music. His tribute to Chopin, Thank You, is proof of this (should any be needed). Richard Rodney Bennett performed and wrote jazz, as well as film scores and concert works. His concert works frequently embraced twelve-tone serialism, so his range was unusually wide in its influence and effect. For a taste of his film music, please try his score for Far From the Madding Crowd, for his concert music Dream Dancing and for his jazz compositions the Four Piece Suite.  

Another of the great names of post-war classical music Hans Werner Henze also passed away towards the end of last year. One of the great stories of contemporary music is how the première of his Nachtstücke und Arien in 1957 provoked a walk-out by the leaders of the avant-garde, Boulez, Nono and Stockhausen. The tale is told that they simply found it too beautiful for their dry, puritanical tastes - though they probably found it too conservative. Those were ideological times, even in classical music, and Henze (though a living, breathing communist) clearly found himself on the wrong, 'reactionary' side of their version of musical history. (How ironic!) Nachtstücke und Arien is a beautiful piece. I've only just discovered it. Henze has never really appealed to me though. I think I may have been unlucky in the pieces of his I happen to have heard. It's possibly telling (and not in a good way) that a man's death prompts the sort of re-evaluation of his music that didn't seem at all urgent when he was actually alive. Any happy discoveries will be passed on to you. 

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