Monday, 21 July 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 6 Ha! Ha! Among the trumpets (1)




Among the terms for day-to-day use, none spoke more clear than Imbiss Stube. We noticed it first as we made our way the next morning from the Westpark to the eastern outskirts of Aachen and the road to Cologne: a menu beside the door of a shop showed that Imbiss Stube painted above meant snack bar. We went in and ordered breakfast with a flowing morning ease - foreign languages always tripping off the tongue more readily in the morning than later in the day - we were inordinately proud of: Zwei Kaffee, bitte, und zwei Brötchen mit Eier (two coffees, please, and two bread rolls with eggs). Brötchen mit Eier turned out to be two fried eggs accompanied by a bread roll with butter. A perfectly good breakfast, heaped with hidden advantages: it was the cheapest on the menu, we would never have to bother with anything else, and fluency in ordering bolstered our linguistic self-confidence. We even became sensitive to those parts of Germany where zwei becomes zwo (like our 'two') and where Brötchen becomes Semmel, as it did later on in Bavaria and Austria.

We talked about the previous evening. The Aachen/Stuttgart confusion apart, we'd had a good time. Max and Freddy and their pals - technical college students, apparently, undertaking a vacation project in Aachen university - had been lively company, German beer, nothing like English bitter, just got better and better with every mouthful and we'd ended the evening well lit up but not so uncomfortable that we were obliged to stagger round the corner and bring it all up again.

But those songs intrigued me. I couldn't fathom what post-war cultural influences had led to a group of intelligent young men amusing themselves by singing surely old-fashioned marching songs in the pub. I couldn't imagine myself and George and half a dozen of our recent sixth-form pals singing Goodbye, Dolly Gray (from the Boer War) or Pack up your troubles in your old kitbag (from WWI) with words regular or rude round our pints of Fremlins' best bitter at the Coopers' Arms in St Margaret's Street in Rochester. For one thing singing in pubs wasn't a common practice, despite some English pubs at the time putting up notices saying NO SINGING (together with NO SPITTING and NO PASSING OF BETTING SLIPS although I have to say my evidence for this comes from dimly remembered Giles cartoons of the period in The Daily Express.)

- We could do with a few signs saying NO AIRING OF AESTHETIC THEORIES, George said.
- What! But I haven't said a word!
- You will, Chris, you will.

So be it. In 1795, the year of Adelaïde and three years after his arrival in Vienna, Beethoven was commissioned to compose the music for the annual masked charity ball in aid of pensioners of the Viennese Society of Painters and Sculptors. Dance music then consisted of minuets (in slow three-time, partner held formally by the finger-tips), contredanses (figured movements in more lively two-time, something like Scottish country dances, indeed sometimes called écossaises), and Deutsche (fast whirling dance in three-time, partner held close round the waist, precursor of the Viennese waltz, sometimes called Ländler).

- I remember a balmy night a couple of weeks ago, really indigo and velvet, at Blossom End - that was the name of Adèle's hosts' house - when we danced Viennese waltzes on their patio. Someone produced a record of Strauss waltzes, played by Mantovani and his orchestra.
- Mantovani? Jesus. How low can you get?
- I know. I tell you this as a trusted friend, confident that it will go no further. But it was all we had. The alternative was Mrs Mills or Winifred Atwell. Or Russ Conway. They had really peculiar musical tastes, Adèle's hosts. When it came to ballroom dances, we both had unusual experiences: when I was 11 or 12, at an all boys' school, I - perhaps because I'm not the tallest bloke you've ever seen - and half the rest of us were made honorary girls, so I learnt to waltz backwards. Adèle was always tall for her age, so they made her an honorary boy in the dance class. So we both did it the wrong way round. It didn't make any difference to the way we held each other, though. I could never fathom what she had on underneath, something ridged and rigid. Maybe it was a suspender belt.
- Oh, get on with Beethoven. We could do with a sign saying NO BLOODY MAUNDERING ON ABOUT FLAMING ADÈLE.
- Not a very romantic soul, are you? You don't seem to realise that these experiences may colour an entire lifetime?
- Suspender belts are not romantic. They're horrible bloody things.

Anyway, it says much for Beethoven's reputation - he was 25, although as we've seen it's very likely he thought he was 23 - as a composer that he was given this commission. He'd written very little orchestral music up till then, just his earliest piano concerto, the one we call No.2, and some accompaniments for choral works. However he scored these dances, 12 Minuets and 12 Deutsche (i.e. German dances) for a basic orchestral line-up, strings, flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani. They're perfectly delicious. Somebody called them the small change of Beethoven's genius. People must have adored them, to listen to and to dance to. Certainly they became very popular. You can always tell how popular music like this became from the arrangements made of it for other instruments and ensembles: Beethoven made his own arrangements, to avoid the pirating endemic in the absence of efficient copyright laws, for piano solo and for two violins and double bass.

So these dances can be taken to be his first solely orchestral work. But here's a curious thing: the trumpet parts are extraordinarily simple, almost as though he expected complete beginners to play them. [I've given the 1st Trumpet part above. It's silent (tacet) for most of the time, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the chief art in trumpet playing in Beethoven's time was counting rests.] In his early days in Vienna Beethoven, as a virtuoso himself, mixed with other virtuosi: Schuppanzigh the violinist, Dragonetti the bass player, Anton Reicha the flautist, Punto the hornist, Ramm the oboist. No trumpet virtuoso, however. No trumpeter ever made his name playing Beethoven's trumpet parts, nor Mozart's, nor Haydn's. Beethoven only uses his trumpets to fill in harmony, to provide a thicker orchestral texture, and to point energetic rhythms, usually of a military cast. In the course of 30 years of mature orchestral composition he took other instruments to the limit and beyond of their known capabilities. His own piano music reaches previously unguessed-at technical heights. His last quartets far transcend previously known string-playing possibilities. His horn writing explores new limits, even his drum parts lead where no timpanist had gone before. But throughout those 30 years his writing for trumpet resisted any development. The final movement of the 9th symphony makes hardly more demands of the trumpets than the 12 Deutsche.

And yet fifty years before trumpet-playing involved mastery of the most florid and intricate melodic lines, generally high up in that part of the trumpet register called clarino. Purcell, Bach, Handel and Vivaldi and their contemporaries made heavy demands of their trumpeters. The unique compass of magnificence achieved by Baroque trumpet-and-drum passages, the equivalent in musical terms of the architecture of Versailles, say, was a sonority unknown to Beethoven. Within two generations of its heyday the art of clarino playing had died out.

We left Aachen behind us. Several lifts, now long overtaken by oblivion, took us across an unsightly and uninteresting plain towards Cologne. Consideration of the death of clarino playing and its implications for the future would have to wait.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 5 Into Germany (3)



Max and Freddy and their half-dozen friends, assembled in an Aachen bar whose name I've forgotten, turned out to be good company. The only conceivable reference to the war was the slightly militaristic tone of the songs they sang. I remember particularly three that I've scribbled down lopsidedly above: Herr Leutnant, Herr Leutnant, was gibt's mit ihre Frau (Mr Lieutenant, Mr Lieutenant, what's up with your wife: evidently her inattention to personal hygiene discouraged admirers). Chiefly notable, apart from the scurrilities, of this song and its fellows Bums! Da fiel die Lampe um, und alles war Petroleum (Whoops! The lamp fell over, and there was oil everywhere) and Schon wieder eine Seele vom Alkohol geret-tet-tet (Yet another soul rescue-cue-cued from alcohol) was their jaunty swagger, their quick-march tempo and basic tonic-and-dominant harmony.

I could imagine Bismarck's Prussians singing march songs like these on their way to take on the Habsburg Emperor Franz-Josef's troops in the Seven Weeks' War of 1866, and being met at Sadowa by Austrians who had marched to the defence of their frontiers singing exactly the same songs. Nor was it difficult to imagine the same soldiers singing the same songs as they marched to confront Napoleon III four years later, nor indeed Kaiser Bill's armies sweeping through Belgium and north-east France in 1914, closely followed by Hitler's troops in 1940.

Where had these songs come from? It likely to me that the words of Herr Leutnant had been tacked on to an existing march tune (a tune whose exploitation of the submediant as a kind of alternative dominant indicated the 1850s). It wouldn't be the only time that a march tune had become celebrated through the words later associated with it. After all, some unknown barrack-room and NAAFI genius had taken the spit-and-polish rhythm of Kenneth Alford's march Colonel Bogey, named, bizarrely, after an Inverness golfer, and had added the following immortal ditty:

Hitler,
He only had one ball:
Goering [pron. 'goring']
Had two, but very small:
Himmler,
Had something sim'lar,
But poor old Goebbels [pron. 'gobles']
Had no balls
At all.

I discovered later that there existed commercial recordings of these German street, bar and route-march songs, tracks with sequences of half-a-dozen such songs recorded by scratch oom-pah bands and ad hoc bar choirs. There was very little like it in British song literature. Obscene songs apart, maybe Cockney songs came closest, Knees Up, Mother Brown and Where Did You Get That Hat? and the like, essentially music-hall songs, an innocent and artless genre recently resuscitated - in fact in the previous April, when George and I were revising for A Levels, and when Adèle's school was fixing up her exchange - by a guitarist calling himself Lonnie Donegan with a song called My Old Man's a Dustman.

This was the song George and I contributed to the evening's entertainment. (In the circumstances we felt songs about Hitler's monorchism were hardly suitable.) My old man's a dustman, we sang, 'E wears a dustman's 'at, 'e wears gorblimey trousers, an' 'e lives in a council flat. The Germans found this song problematical. With great earnestness, as though it would reveal deep insights into the English character, they asked for a translation, and of course we fell at the first hurdle with 'old man' as a familiar term for 'father'. (Is your father an old man? Why you say he is old? You are young. My father is 43.) As for 'gorblimey', we could only register dismal failure.

- It is a colour, yes?
- No, Max, not really. No, it doesn't mean a colour, more a...
- I know, I know! It is a style of trouser, no?
- Yes, Freddy, I suppose so. A style. You've got it, mate.
- It is not a very beautiful style, I think?
- It is not a very beautiful song, definitely.
- Why the English make songs about their trouser?
- Why the English make songs about their Strassenfeger? [dustmen]
- Why the English make songs about old men?
- Why the English make songs?

Clearly there were gaps to be bridged. Maybe the same cultural impasse occurred to Joan Littlewood, doughty founder director of the Theatre Workshop, in Oh What A Lovely War, first produced about three years later: in the famous World War I Christmas fraternisation scene, German soldiers in sentimental mood are heard singing Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent night, holy night) in their trenches. In due course they request a seasonal song from the Tommy Atkinses in the trench opposite. The British soldiers oblige with:

It was Christmas day in the harem,
The eunuchs was standing round,
And hundreds of beautiful women
Were stretched out on the ground,
When in strode the Bold Bad Sultan,
And gazed on his marble halls,
Saying 'What do you want for Christmas, boys?'
And the eunuchs answered...
Chorus:
Tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy,
Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.

So the evening passed. George and I felt honoured when they toasted us towards the end of the evening Hoch soll'n sie leben, hoch soll'n sie leben, dreimal hoch (roughly Long may they live, long may they live, three times long). Max left before anyone else, presenting us with his card. (A card! At nineteen! We'd never heard of such a thing.) Here was his address, if we wanted a bed for the night, or anything. It was in the city centre, we'd find it easily. The pleasure would be his. He bowed and clicked his heels.

The party broke up, overflowing with beer-fellowship. Outside, I glanced at Max's card. Maximilian Hoffmann, student, it read. Schumanngasse 17. We could do with a bed for the night then and there: suppose we took up Max's offer straight away? So we set off to search for the Schumanngasse all round central Aachen. We stopped to ask: nobody had heard of it. After the best part of an hour's wandering about, George asked to look at the card.

- What's it like, being a complete cretin and bloody fool?
- Huh?
- Look at this card. What does it say?
- Maximilian Hoffmann, student. Schumanngasse 17...

I paused.

- Go on, read it out, George said. Read it all out. Read out the name of the town.
- Stuttgart, I said. Bloody Stuttgart. I'm sorry. I just assumed he lived in Aachen.

We made our way back to the Westpark, found our oak tree, unrolled our sleeping bags and settled down for the night. At least we didn't have the problem of stumbling about in the middle of the night in a strange house trying to find the bathroom.