Having spent most of the afternoon compiling the wretched thing (time which would have been better spent practising, or sunbathing), I felt I should share my Classical music timeline here. There are sins of omission, I know, so please don’t contact me to point out who I’ve forgotten! It is intended simply as an overview, and, because I am a pianist, is somewhat weighted towards composers of the piano.
Radio 4 is kindly allowing us, Joe Public, to offer up our own choices as the venerated programme approaches its 70th birthday (you can submit your choices here, and explore the archive). I put together a playlist on Spotify last week, but didn’t give it that much thought. Meanwhile, a very thoughtful and varied post by fellow-blogger The Argumentative Old Git inspired me to review my choices and make a more considered selection. I have always enjoyed the programme, and although I am not 70 (nor will be for another 25 years!), I do remember Roy Plomley presenting the programme. Desert Island Discs is, like The Archers, and Woman’s Hour, one of our radio national treasures, to be cherished and revered.
The music listed is available via Spotify, free to download and free to use, and the list is in no particular order, rather the pieces are listed as they come to mind. Nor are they necessarily “favourites” (though many are); these are simply pieces which have special resonances for me.
Mozart – Clarinet Quintet, K581, II Larghetto: My father was a fine amateur clarinettist and this was one of his favourite pieces (sadly, he had to give up the clarinet some years ago because it was affecting his teeth). We used to play a reduced version for piano and clarinet together, and he often played this with Music Minus One, which I would hear from my bedroom as I was going off to sleep as a child.
Beethoven – Symphony No. 7: My paternal grandfather was a Marxist, a (old) Labour man all his life, and a trade union leader (NUPE) in the 1960s. He was a fascinating man and I had a great fondness for him. He encouraged me to play the piano from a very young age, and he had a great affinity with fellow Old Radical and his music. This, along with the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6), was one of his favourites. He requested this movement at his funeral, but only I remembered his request – and too late.
Kate Bush – ‘Wuthering Heights’: I have always been a great fan of Kate Bush, a musician who never stands still and who has never rested on her musical laurels. She is constantly reinventing herself, while retaining the key elements of her music which make it so distinctive. ‘Wuthering Heights’ was the first single I bought, after seeing Kate on Top of the Pops in 1978 when she was still a teenager. Her latest collection ‘Director’s Cut’ is about to be released, a compilation and reworking of tracks from her 1990s albums The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.
Talking Heads – ‘Road to Nowhere’: This is the track of my university days in the mid-80s, oft requested at discos and parties, along with ‘Once in A Lifetime’ from an earlier album of the same name. Whenever I hear this song, I am transported back to Exeter, to a cold attic room in a drafty student house, to learning how to cook for myself in a kitchen with a permanently sticky floor, and arguments over whose turn it was to do the washing up. Happy days! I had waist-length dyed auburn hair, and a penchant for maxi skirts and chunky jumpers. I don’t remember doing that much work, though I did stay up all night to finish typing my dissertation to make sure it was handed in on time! Listening to the track now, the opening lyrics seem rather appropriate for a group of young people poised on the threshold of adulthood.
Joy Division – ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’: By being born in the middle of the 1960s, I was slightly too young to appreciate Joy Division first time round, when their lead singer Ian Curtis was still alive. Nevermind the tragic circumstances of Ian Curtis’s suicide, this song is the sound of a heart shattering, of the end of a love affair, the hauntingly tragic lyrics almost crooned over a mournful bass line and robotic drums. Monstrously beautiful and utterly beguiling, brutally claustrophobic, potent and ethereal, as sublime and chilling as Schubert sharing his painful outbursts and lyrical consolations, it sums up emptiness and sadness, yet is both enchanting and intoxicating. This is preposterously good music, with a spine-tingling uniqueness: it gets to me every time I hear it.
Schubert – Impromptu in A flat, D899, No. 4: I first encountered Schubert’s Impromptus (the D899 and D935 sets) when I was in my teens and about to take my Grade 8 piano exam. I probably heard the pieces in concert and was struck by the ethereal nature of the fourth of the first set. I bought a Peters edition of the score and set about learning it. When I played it to my piano teacher for the first time, she shook her heard in disbelief at my total misunderstanding of how to play the fluttering semiquavers which make up the main motif of the piece. Once set on the right track, I was able to learn the piece correctly. This, for me, is part of my “tingle factor” collection, a piece I will also stop for, if it comes on the radio. It is both romantic and plaintive, beautiful and haunting. I still play it, though I have, with my current teacher’s guidance, “unlearnt” the fingering scheme of my teens and replaced it with a more logical and comfortable scheme to cope with the semiquavers. It is one of the few pieces I can play from memory (just!).
Joni Mitchell – ‘Both Sides Now‘: As well as missing out on Punk, I missed out on the flower-power generation, and so became a “neo-hippie” in my teens in the early 1980s, discovering the protest music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, as well as Janis Joplin, The Doors, Patti Smith, Carole King, The Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, and, my most favourite female singer of all, Joni Mitchell. Like Kate Bush, Joni has managed to reinvent herself, and is still going strong, songwriting and painting. Her voice has deepened, grown more gravelly (like Dylan’s), with time. This song is my absolute favourite, and one which can trigger tears, even when I play it to myself on the piano.
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in A, No. 31, Opus 110: “Who’s your favourite composer, Fran?” asked Ben, one of my keenest students, after a lesson spent working on a reduced version of the Moonlight Sonata with him. “Beethoven” I replied emphatically. “And who’s your second favourite?” he asked. “Ah, now that’s a difficult one, Ben, because there are so many composers whose music I love…..”. Lucky Ben, poised on the cusp of a lifetime of discovery of the greatness of the piano’s repertoire….. I’m not working on any Beethoven myself at the moment (though I probably should be), but he is a composer who I always return to, for his wisdom, his wit, his humour, his ever-changing moods, his sheer weirdness and unpredictability. I have favourites among the piano sonatas, but the Opus 110 is my absolute favourite, and the piece I would take to the desert island with me (also the choice of tenor Ian Bostridge, clearly a man of taste). This isn’t music, it is philosophy, written near the end of the composer’s life, though there is nothing valedictory nor depressing about it. Truly life-affirming, with that amazing fugue, the most stable and steadying of music devices, in the final movement. Favourite recordings? Glenn Gould, who gives it a quasi fantasia reading by segueing effortlessly between movements, Claudio Arrau, Mitsuko Uchida…..
Kirsty Young: “And so, Cross-Eyed Pianist, we come to your book choice. You have the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare…..”
How difficult to be asked to select one book out of many! Here, I think I would have to bend the rules of the programme and ask to take all the books I’ve been meaning to read, and all the books about which friends and colleagues have said “you must read this!”. These include Charles Rosen’s ‘The Classical Style’, Chopin’s Letters, Alan Walker’s three-volume ‘Life of Liszt’, Adam Zamoyski’s ‘Chopin: Prince of the Romantics”, and many, many more, too numerous to list here. You see, I’m far too idle and lacking in practical life-skills (beyond being able to cook and change a plug) to try and build a raft to escape from the Desert Island. And so I will sit on the beach in the sun, or in the shade of a palm tree, reading,reading, reading…..
Kirsty Young: “And your luxury?”
If I was replying as my other blogging persona, Demon Cook, I would request a good cooking knife and a wok. As The Cross-Eyed Pianist I must, of course, request a fine grand piano, and the score of the Complete Piano Sonatas of Beethoven. That, and the extensive reading list should keep me pretty occupied until I am rescued….
English tenor Ian Bostridge CBE, with his wonderful pianist Julius Drake, proved his extraordinary range and versatility as a singer with a programme featuring music by Tippett, Britten, Haydn and Weill. Read my review for Bachtrack.com here
I’m off to my spiritual home this evening, London’s exquisite Wigmore Hall, to hear the exquisite English tenor Ian Bostridge singing songs by Britten, Tippett, Haydn and Weill, in a special concert which marks the last day of Sir John Tusa’s chairmanship of the Wigmore Hall Trust. I bought a new jumper especially for the concert: it is partly because I love having an opportunity to dress up, and I do think one should make an effort for the soloists, who have, after all, made a huge effort to come out and perform for us. Also, I am going in my new role as a reviewer for Bachtrack.com, and, daft as it may seem, being well-dressed will make me feel confident.
Meanwhile, as I prepare myself to go out, I’ve been thinking about ‘concert etiquette’. It regularly astonishes me how badly people can behave in a concert hall: talking during the performance, humming (often tunelessly), rustling programmes, trying to open blister packs of cough sweets, coughing, yawning. Added to that, there is quite often the dimwit who forgot to switch off their phone, despite the big sign on the stage and hefty reminders by the house staff. I have, twice, been ticked off for having a “very loud watch” (a Swatch, in fact), which “interrupted” the pianissimo slow movement of a Beethoven sonata. At a Chopin recital I went to five years ago, my companion sipped Pimms from a Thermos flask during a performance of the Opus 49 Fantasie. (She also asked me, in the interval, after we’d just heard the B-flat minor Sonata, “So, who wrote the original Funeral March?”, but that is another story….)
From conversations with performers, I’ve learnt that the sense of an audience which is attentive or actively engaged in what one is doing can be extremely helpful, inspirational even, in creating the right atmosphere and circumstances for a great performance. Likewise, as a member of the audience, the sense that the performer is drawing us all along in one marvellous shared musical experience is also very exciting. Mitsuko Uchida is extremely good at this, even in a venue the size of the Royal Festival Hall, while Stephen Hough’s chilly manner made the normally convivial Wigmore seem cold and unfriendly.
Another gripe of mine is about that sector of the concert-going public who seem to gain a perverse thrill from spotting mistakes or flagging up memory lapses or other errors during a performance, as if they are actively waiting for the performer to fail. Rather like hoping for a crash at the beginning of a grand prix race. Some people can’t wait to get home and check their score, or a “perfect” recording while enjoying a sense of smugness in having heard a smudged note or a smeared run in the 15th bar of the First Ballade. When I heard Simone Dinnerstein perform at WH a few year’s ago (admittedly, a rather dull and uninspiring performance generally), she had a serious memory lapse in Schubert’s 4th Impromptu of the D899 set. I know this piece extremely well and I knew exactly where the error occurred. Fortunately, she managed to maintain the right harmonic framework, but it was still a very obvious mistake. I really felt for her, and I wonder how many hours of practice she put in after the event to exorcise that particular error.
At the Wigmore, the large majority of the audience are elderly, some very elderly (read the paragraph Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach for the most perfect description of the Wigmore’s superannuated audience), and the seats are rather comfy and plushy, and it’s often too warm in the hall. Result: Beethoven’s Opus 5 to the accompaniment of snoring. For a performer, it must be rather galling to have spent all those hours preparing only to find a third of the audience asleep, ten minutes into the performance. Ditto people yawning, or talking. In reality, I suspect many performers are expert at “filtering out” such behaviour, and in bigger venues, the lighting is such that only the first few rows of the audience are actually visible.
Of course, these are all relatively minor complaints, and it is rare for such things to spoil my enjoyment of a live concert. For those who require absolute silence, 100 per cent concentration, and perfect delivery from the performer, may I suggest you stay home with the most precision-engineered recording you can find. It might be a perfect performance, but it will lack the danger, risk and excitement of live music.
I’ve set my students what I hope will be an interesting and educational task for the forthcoming half-term break: they are going to write their own programme notes for the Summer Concert in July. I’m not expecting exhaustive analytical notes, nor extended composer biographies, but a few facts about the pieces they have chosen to play isn’t a lot to ask, surely?
Whenever I introduce a new piece to a student, whatever genre it is, we spend some time considering what the piece is about, the “story” it is telling, the pictures it paints. I get students to do very basic musical analysis – look for repeating motifs or patterns, identify articulation, dynamic and tempo markings, translate musical terms – and I try to give them some basic contextual information. For example, if learning a piece by Bach or even Mozart, it’s important to remember that neither composer was writing for anything like a modern piano. Or that Schubert was a composer of song. That Bartok was greatly influenced by the folk music of his native Hungary. I admit I was very surprised when the student who came to me for some extra exam tuition from another teacher had not been given any contextual or background information to the pieces she is learning. By asking my students to think a little more closely about the pieces they have chosen to play in the concert, I hope they may gain some new insights about them.
For me, setting the music in the context in which it was created is crucial to understanding the composer’s intentions and is a key to learning how to interpret all the composer’s markings and directions correctly to produce, eventually, a reading that is both musical and accurate. When I embark on a new piece, I do a great deal of background reading, and make extensive notes, both contextual and analytical.
At a professional concert, the best programme notes are often those which give one some historical background to the works, a brief composer biography and an overview of what is going on in the music (i.e. a list of movements or sections). Not everyone needs to know that a piece which opens in A minor may resolve itself in C, though an explanation of a Picardy Third can be enlightening. Facts about how the music came to be, such as the Quartet for the End of Time, which Messiaen composed while a prisoner of war, are interesting, but surmising on whether Chopin’s fondness for ‘miniatures’ suggests he may have been gay, are not. I think some writers of programme notes forget that many concert-goers are not expert musicologists or specialists, and all they require is a list of what they are going to hear with a brief description. At Charles Rosen’s Chopin recital last Sunday, one of my friends expressed a wish for a glossary of musical terms, a translation of all those curious Italian words. I told him that one of my students had recently interpreted Allegro ma non troppo as “fast but not trotting”, and that I always translate Allegro amabile as “smile as you quickly play”!
A number of musicians who I hear regularly like to introduce the music themselves. This serves several purposes: first, it breaks down that awful “them and us” barrier that can exist at concert venues; secondly, it allows the performer to explain the music as he or she sees it, and to offer some personal insights into what makes the music particularly interesting or special, both compositionally and in terms of what it is like, physically and emotionally, to play the work. At a lunchtime concert I attended last Friday, there were no programme notes, beyond a list of each work’s movements, and biographies of the performers. Instead, the musicians themselves introduced the music (Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor for Piano & Violin, Op. Posth. 137 and Strauss’s Violin Sonata in E Flat Op. 18). I knew very little about the Schubert Sonatina, and even less about the Strauss: both pieces were introduced engagingly, piquing my interest before a single note had been played. A couple of nuggets, such as the witty nod to Schubert’s Erlkönig and Beethoven’s Pathètique Sonata in the Strauss sonata, were flagged up in advance of the performance, though there were no prizes for spotting them (as I did)!
When my students come back after half-term with some facts about their pieces, and a brief biography, I will collate all the information into a main programme for the concert (including my own programme notes, of course!). This may be an amateur event, but I feel it is important to do it “properly” to create a sense of occasion for my students, who have, by and large, worked very hard this year. The concert is, as always, a celebration of that hard work, and a chance to share music with family and friends.
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Grand old man of piano Charles Rosen presented an all-Chopin programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Sunday 15th May 2011. Read my full review here