Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Creation of the World


Rich and heady times, here in this little corner of the Languedoc. My 8-strong multi-national chamber choir, called Les Jeudistes because we rehearse on Thursday evenings, is building up for performance of its major project this year. We're lucky enough to have an extraordinary venue for singing: Le Prieuré de St Julien, shown above in its setting of vineyards and cypress trees. This is - or was - a jewel of Romanesque architecture, perfectly proportioned, finely built in dressed ashlar with dark red sandstone trimmings, dating from c.880 AD, roughly the time of King Alfred in England. It must have cost the earth, then. Ecclesiastical vandals arrived in about 1680, adding the stone tower and belfry in coarse masonry and widening the nave, throwing the original apse and altar off centre and ruining the proportions. But they carved into the new masonry a cockleshell, signifying a halt on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella, and they left an acoustic perfect for small choirs.




It's a big moment for me, not only as Les Jeudistes' conductor but as a composer as well. We're performing a work I've called Sounds and Sweet Airs, a suite of twelve settings of Shakespeare songs for choir and piano. Shakespeare buffs may recognise the title as something Caliban says in The Tempest. Where we would say première for a first performance, the French say création, and, as these songs haven't been performed anywhere else in their entirety, the posters advertising the concert announce création mondiale, world première. H'm. I hope it's not world dernière as well. Here we are in a photo taken 2 years ago, performing Vivaldi's Gloria with a small orchestra.




The twelve songs are:

1. Orpheus with his lute (Henry VIII)
2. Fie on lustful fantasy! (Merry Wives of Windsor)
3. Tell me, where is fancy bred? (The Merchant of Venice)
4. Sigh no more, ladies (Much Ado About Nothing)
5. O mistress mine, where are you roaming? (Twelfth Night)
6. Blow, blow, thou winter wind (As You Like It)
7. Come away, come away, death (Twelfth Night)
8. Full fathom five thy father lies (The Tempest)
9. Jog on, jog on the footpath way (The Winter's Tale)
10. Fear no more the heat o' the sun (Cymbeline)
11. When that I was and a little tiny boy (Twelfth Night)
12. You spotted snakes with double tongue (A Midsummer Night's Dream)


Any reader finding him/herself near Le Prieuré de St Julien on Friday 19th June at 8.45pm is naturally more than welcome to drop in. It's free. When I've worked out how to do it I'll put these songs on line.

Here's the first page, Orpheus with his lute. I do have software which produces beautifully printed music, but those opening sextuplet arpeggio sweeps, like opening curtains, are so complicated on the computer keyboard that I find it's easier and quicker to write them by hand.

Monday, 15 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 13 Slugs, Snails and Irish Girls (2)



Having left our bodily imprints in the furrows between rows of turnips, we picked our way as the sun was rising through the pink-flowered wood and rejoined the slip road. We glanced up and down: there seemed to be no fewer hitch-hikers than the evening before. Had they been there all night, vainly waving thumbs at headlights?

Where we emerged from the wood there two lumpish girls of about our age, tousled and grimy, wearing baggy khaki shorts and what looked like army boots with bobby-socks that would have been white a few days before. That I can only remember what encased their lower halves tells its own story. One had an Irish tricolour on her rucksack. We tried them in English, but they were so uncommunicative that it was hardly worth the effort of speaking to them in any language:

- Hi. Where are you heading for?
- Istanbul.
- How long have you been here?
- Since Sunday.
- What, day and night?
- Aye. Bugger off, the pair of you. The queue starts up there.

She may have said 'the pair of yez', but I don't remember. Nor can I remember any witty, acerb, telling response to this. As the long day passed, and as by midday we'd only moved two places down the queue, the desperation of the Karlsruhe trap began to bite with all its savage force. The Irish girls had probably been afraid that their chances of a lift, already slender, would be reduced even further if they were apparently accompanied by two boys. Nobody ever stopped for groups of four. Besides, girls always had an advantage, although those girls (still there, about a dozen places down) hadn't done much to promote their femininity. It wouldn't have been easy for them, of course, to present a roadside vision of loveliness and more if they were sleeping rough like us.

The traffic rolled past, mostly accelerating hard, largely ignoring the roadside ripple of waving thumbs. The queue system didn't really work. There might have been a slight advantage in being first in the queue, but the few drivers who stopped did so quite arbitrarily. Down at the start of the slip road a car deposited a kilted hitch-hiker, who swung his rucksack on to his back, strode across the road and waved his thumb at the first car to pass, which stopped for him. A bolt of monstrous anger, like an electric shock, flashed up the queue. Fists were waved, one- or two-fingered gestures made, imprecations shouted in many languages, and I daresay lifelong anti-Scots prejudices formed.

The afternoon passed, under a sweltering August sun. There was nothing there, just a sun-bleached grass verge, litter-strewn, a pervading hopelessness mingled with petrol and diesel fumes, dust and hot tarmac. No mirages of little roadside cafés with bright awnings and ice-cold beer shimmered in the distance. The romance of this very road and no other, of this very point outside Karlsruhe being the gateway to the fabled east, to Vienna, to Budapest, to Istanbul and beyond to Persian lands afar, to Shangri-La and distant Cathay soon vanished, chased headlong by thirst and dirt, noisome fumes and the sensed hostility of fellow hitch-hikers. Newcomers appeared and took sullen station beyond us. Some said 'Servus!' as they trudged past, a greeting I hadn't known before. Each approaching vehicle spawned an embryo of hope, aborted despair as it sped past. Our water was done, in part squandered trying to rinse slug-slime off my brow in the night. We exchanged some plums with some French neighbours for a half-fill of what they called George's gourd, his water bottle.

George and I spoke less and less. We had now been in this desolate spot for 24 hours. Gefängnisvogel was a false prophet, his religion of transcendental motation a snare for the simple-minded.

Evil, frustration-fuelled thoughts began to swirl up from the depths. Should we pack up and go home? Would I be better off on my own?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 13 Slugs, Snails and Irish Girls (1)


In our cheap hotel in Limburg an den Lahr George and I enjoyed the best night's sleep that we'd had for about a week, deep, dreamless and untroubled by any of those disturbances we'd experienced so far. In chronological order they'd been:

1. Being urinated on in a rhododendron thicket in Brussels
2. An evangelist fighting with his wife in the next room
3. Vain searching in Aachen for an address in Stuttgart
4. Dirt and a Moh-scale concrete floor in predatory homosexual-haunted Cologne station

- and others were to follow, in due course: one night there was a sudden irruption of Pearly Kings and Queens; on another a dawn demolition gang moved in; and among the many uncomfortable conclusions to be drawn from this odyssey a priority has to be given to the inadvisability of unwittingly using an anthill as an alfresco pillow. As novice travellers the light of a holy innocence shone dimly about us: were these the nocturnal hallmarks of foreign travel? Could we expect things to improve, or were these disturbances the norm?

They didn't improve the following night, a Monday. We set off from Limburg an den Lahr, having changed into Deutschmarks the Belgian francs we'd earned by George pretending to be miraculously cured of a twisted ankle and by me singing Beethoven's Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur, Nature's Praise of God, in Liège. We'd breakfasted well on coffee, fruit and fresh bread rolls with very white butter and blackcurrant jam. We were clean, shaven, and in an access of domesticity we'd even washed some of our clothes: no doubt very inefficiently with hotel bathbrush and a pumice-stone we found, but the wearing of a clean shirt and knickers was a rare luxury, even if they were still a bit stiff with unrinsed hard yellow soap.

An Amiable Dutchman and his wife, as placid and smiling as Prophet Gefängnisvogel had been maniacally devoured by speed, picked us up early. The following conversation took place:

Amiable Dutchman: Wo fahren Sie hin? [Where are you going?]
Me: Nach Wien. [To Vienna]
AD: Nach Wien! Wie lang unterwegs? [To Vienna! How long have you been travelling?]
Me, counting the days on my fingers: Sechs... [six]

... and now there was a problem: was the plural of Tag, day, Tage (pronounced 'taa-ge') or Täge (pronounced 'tay-ge')? A million panic-impelled brain-cells flashed, flitting at the speed of light through the cerebral maze for the connection that would lead to linguistic credibility: Tage or Täge? No tag from Schubert song or 'Battler' Britton war comic came to the rescue. In desperation I opted, as it happened correctly, for Tage.

Me: Sechs Tage.
AD, incredulously, wondering what kind of cretin he'd picked up if it took him that long to identify as basic a concept as the day: Sind Sie Deutsche? [Are you German?]
Me: Nein, wir sind Ëngländer. [No, we're English.]
AD: Then we can speak English!

The Amiable Dutchman and his wife (who produced a pack of marshmallows which we finished at her urging) eventually dropped us outside Karlsruhe, where the main thrust of the autobahn divides, eastwards for Stuttgart and Munich and southwards towards Strasbourg and Basel, which was where they were heading. There seemed to be a vast and incomprehensible tangle of motorways and slip roads. No roadsigns were designed for the benefit of English pedestrians, and it took much earnest rucksack-laden plodding under the August sun to find the eastern approach road.

When we finally reached it, we discovered a phenomenon that associates Karlsruhe in my mind as strongly with boredom and ill-tempered frustration as Cologne is with dirt and petty criminality. The approach road was dotted with about thirty sets of hitch-hikers, singletons or pairs, spaced regularly along the grass verge. Clearly this was a Great European Interchange for hitch-hikers. Ignorant of the conventions we set up a roadside thumb at the beginning of the approach road. Two Norwegian scouts a little beyond us, clearly far gone in boredom and frustration, shouted at us angrily to to clear off, this was their patch; we had to take our place in the queue. We asked where the end of the queue was: they waved up the slope to where the approach grafted itself into the autobahn.

By nightfall the queue had barely moved. As darkness fell we slipped away, not troubling to ask ourselves what would happen to our place in the queue if we abandoned it overnight. We climbed over a wooden fence and picked our way through a strip of woodland unappealingly littered with clumps of pink toilet paper. Beyond was a field of an unidentified root crop. We settled here for the night, brewing up yet more chicken noodle soup and regretting that we'd eaten all Mrs Amiable Dutchman's marshmallows. We talked of what we were going to do once this adventure was over. George was going to work in his father's insurance agency. I said I was going to write music. What else?

In the night I was woken by something tugging at my forehead and eyebrows. In horror I put my hand to my head to discover what it might be: it was a monstrous slug, crossing from one row of turnips to the next. I could not rid myself of its slime. Was there to be no end to nocturnal disturbances?

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

36 Steps to Vienna: 12 A Group of Noble Dames (3)


Immortal Beloved candidate N0. 94: Therese von Brunswick

The question remains: why did Beethoven keep the Immortal Beloved letter among his private papers from 1812 until his death some fifteen years later?

In his days as a virtuoso pianist and while his hearing was still reasonably good Beethoven was famous for his extraordinary mastery of existing works, including his own, but also for his powers of improvisation, for inventing music as he sat at the keyboard. Almost a forgotten art nowadays, limited to jazz musicians and church organists, in Beethoven's day the ability of keyboard players to improvise was taken for granted. Many reports exist of listeners' reactions to Beethoven's improvisation, and mostly they speak of the sublime emotional power of his free extemporisation at the keyboard and of the utter captivation of his listeners. I suspect that some of the conquests which Franz Wegeler quotes above originated in Beethoven's improvisations, and that this Adonis of the piano's ability to charm women off the trees was no less developed than Liszt's or Chopin's, two other virtuoso improvisers. The 'conquests' Wegeler refers to were probably more innocent than the wider morality of a later age might encourage us to believe, and in any case girls who swoon over sweeping arpeggios and melting andante cantabiles don't usually become immediate life partners and surrogate mothers.

I suspect also, probably deeply unfashionably, that until his deafness became virtually total, the mainspring of his musical invention lay in improvisation. This isn't the place to explore the correlation between improvisation, his deafness and his finished, published work in depth and detail, but it does strike me that up until about 1805 Beethoven was reluctant to relinquish control over his more passionately intimate and emotional music by writing it in media that would require a group of musicians rather than a soloist to realise it. The great majority of what could crudely and crassly be called his love music is written for piano, hence primarily for Beethoven himself to play, and possibly - although this is the merest conjecture - for a piano-playing immortal beloved to feel the depth of his passion for her. As one might expect, given his genius for improvisation, such music is often cast in the slow movements of his piano sonatas. One has only to think of the famous slow movement of the Pathétique sonata of c.1798 or that of the Appassionata sonata of c.1806 to canvas the possibility that this music was so private, so expressive of intimate feeling, such a communion between composer and immortal beloved, that no one but a soloist could be expected to get inside it. No hidden ciphers, no coy messages of love such as Schumann encoded for his girlies in his piano suite Carnaval, none of the melting moments there are in the vast corpus of Schubert piano duets, where the composer might touch fingers or overlay hands with the beautiful pupil beside him: Beethoven's music is on a quite different, indeed elemental, level.

I think the slow movement of the Appassionata (his publisher Cranz's subtitle, not Beethoven's) is in some senses a parallel text to the Immortal Beloved letter. I expect there are many other similar movements, but I would like to analyse this one in what I admit are enjoyably unconventional terms, and I can only hope sincerely that my analysis won't be thought so erotic, indeed salacious, that the piece is withdrawn immediately as a set work by any Mrs Grundys lurking round the premises of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

This movement is cast in theme-and-variation form, alone of the recognised classical forms which allows for cumulative, uninterrupted dramatic build-up. Written in the greatest dignity with two slow beats in each bar, set plumb in the baritone register, the tune is possibly the simplest Beethoven ever wrote: in the first eight bars only four different notes are used. It mostly consists of simple chords, soft and low, slowly melding from one to the next with the velvet regularity of day turning into night, of ebb succeeding flow - and of the seamless rise and fall of a serene, timeless coition. This is the coitus that knows no lust, and there is nothing more beautiful between loving couples on this earth, nor anything more susceptible to ignoble degradation. The intensity grows while the twofold pulse remains stable, until after about three minutes of this sublime music the direction comes poco più mosso, a little faster. The web of delectably intense, tingling sound spun out of the initial chords leads towards climax; but then there comes, as it has to, knowing Beethoven's circumstances, the direction dimin[uendo] e rit[ardando], growing softer and slower. The original tune is broken into an exchange between the baritone and the soprano registers, as though between man and woman, and finally there is a soft, heart-breaking chord of despair. This leads us straight into the last movement of the sonata, a swirling, stuttering passion of disappointment and rage. There has been no climax. The expectation has led to nothing. Beethoven's love has been despised and rejected.

Was Beethoven conscious or unconscious of all this? I've no idea, but I feel perfectly at ease with a glorious agnosticism.

There are several conclusions to the Immortal Beloved saga. Firstly, her identity is unimportant, and musicological deerstalker and magnifying-glass work merely distracts from Beethoven's music. What matters is the depth of feeling the various women in his life engendered in him, feeling expressed firstly mainly in his piano music and later, as his deafness worsened and approached totality, in his symphonic work as well.

And then I think he kept the letter because it marked an important turning point in his life. Just as the 1802 Heiligenstadt Testament, which he also kept with this letter, marked his agonised coming to terms with his health and deafness, so after the Immortal Beloved episode he would renounce the idea of marriage. Whoever she was, she and her sisterhood live on in so much of Beethoven's music. Thank you, ladies. We owe you a great deal.