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A Life in Love with Music

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It is a river vast, both wide and deep that corrals out joy and sadness; lulls to sleep the fretful child, and transforms the darkest landscape of a man depressed into a golden glowing cape.

It is not just the spice of life, but our very life blood, perhaps the central issue in human and animal wellbeing, giving complete absolute freedom, psychologically, inwardly, then outwardly, through singing, dancing or playing instruments.

It arrives with humour, typified by Enbie Blake, the ragtime pianist who, when asked, aged ninety, by Alastair Cooke, for his ‘Letter from America’, what he attributed his longevity to, replied: ‘I guess it was them French fries’. Or Jimi Hendrix, who before he died at twenty-seven quipped: ‘Once you’re dead, you’re made for life’. Likewise Thomas Beecham, the internationally acclaimed British conductor, who once suggested at a choral recording: ‘if the ladies will look more closely at their parts and see where the gentlemen come in, it will make for better reproduction.’

It also inspires poetry, such as the ‘Dance and Provencal Song and Sunburnt mirth’ of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – ‘While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy’

As my friend Jan Skrdlik put it: ‘Music is a special language to communicate everything from the heart’. Just hear him and his consummate pianist Petra Besa play with a passion, almost unheard-of in contemporary Classical music, to see how valid is that epigram.

Go back two hundred years to the Rev. Sidney Smith, who the American ambassador called ‘the wisest man, if he had not been deemed the wittiest’: for Sidney music was ‘the only cheap and unpunished rapture on earth’, the former unfortunately no longer, considering the price of a ticket to Glastonbury Festival, or Grand Opera.

It is a dazzling world, from the first known song, the Hurrian Hymn no. 6 from 3400 BCE in Syria (would they have song now instead of bullets) to the 1264 pop variants of 2018 AD; if those first singers could see the variety of the folk/ethnic/jazz/blues/soul/RnB/Classical/electronic spheres they would surely gasp in awe. How quickly did it grow?

Of the three main strands, Classical and Rock come from the folk of cottage and hut. Classical Indian ragas, arrived well before the monastic parchments of Europe, which engendered late medieval composers like Lassus (listen to his glory on the Christ Church College Choir recordings, conducted by Simon Preston).

The stream of the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque era of Bach (1650- ) and Handel’s legendary Messiah, a river flowing into the torrent of the Classical Age of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (c. 1800); surely the latter brought us to the high water mark of musical expressiveness.

I wonder had any among the thirty thousand who flocked to Beethoven’s funeral heard all nine of his symphonies (including the 9th with its ‘Ode to Joy’), the last five string quartets (Op. 135 the final one, with a slow adagio movement that arrives from no where, has a beauty so simple and pure that perhaps only the Busch, Amadeus and Hollywood quartets have captured its sublime essence in a recording), or his piano sonatas, thirty-two in all with the Op 111 at the end giving one a vision of Paradise, as played by the Jewish-Austrian Artur Schuabel, whose preeminent gifts were expressed in his comment: ‘the notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes – ah, that is where the resides.’?

The rich Romantic nineteenth century saw a spread of greatness from France to Belgium – Cesar Franck’s violin sonata is unmatched – Spain, Russia (including the universally loved Swan Lake ballet of Tchaikovsky) to Italian opera. No way will we ever have another chain of composers like Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini; nor Belcanto singers who grew out of their greatness: Melba and Caruso are the best known, but can they rival Claudia Muzio the soprano, Fernando de Lucia the tenor, or Mattia Battistini the baritone?

I – The Irish Mist

Before looking in more detail at outstanding singing, let me dwell on the Irish miracle. From peat bogs, sparse sunlight, tragic potato famine, English oppression, less than five million living there today, the Irish have swept the world with intoxicating jigs and reels: so deft, poised, and elegant in set dances or even integrated with disco dancing, which I discovered at one New Years Eve party in Dublin that is burnt into my memory. It brought to mind Robert Herrick’s poem ‘When as in silks my Julia goes / then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows / the liquefaction of her clothes’.

Did one man, Sean O’Riada, mainly, inspire, from the 1940s and 50s, a flood of famous bands like De Danaan, Planxty, The Chieftains, the Bothy Band and instrumentalists like Jackie Daly who almost reinvented the melodeon; at a recent Milton Malbay Festival I listened to sixteen playing slow airs, with Jackie, Sam Burke and Brendan Begley having me in tears. Also there, during an Irish Set Dance ceilidh, Martin Hayes played such spine-tingling fiddle solos of fantastic grace and fluidity that it is scarcely surprising that his new group ‘The Gloaming’ should have elicited such critical responses as ‘Brilliant’, ‘Exceptional’, ‘Blissful’ and ‘Exquisite’.

At a pub in Spiddal, near Galway, you will find Johnny Óg Connolly, often with his Dad, playing melodeon; after Milton Malbay, you would not dare dream of encountering such rich tone colours, patterns so delicate, and virtuoso runs celestial, imbued with a poetry, arising from his great humanity, characteristic of the Irish in all walks of life. One cannot conceive how many instruments they can play from the utterly haunting uilleann pipes, via bodhrán (with its gentle and imaginative beat) to the tin whistle of Mary Bergin and Packie Byrne. And weekly, you can hear sessions for free in pubs throughout the land, from Kerry to Donegal.

As a singer, both for ballads, lieder and opera, John McCormack alerted with his unsurpassed natural tenor voice how deeply the human voice can delve in to one’s spirit, this mantle now assumed by those like Mary Black, Tommy Fleming, Dolores Keane, along with a unique group of sean-nós singers, uniquely expressed in Gaelic and unaccompanied. The discovery of the year for me was Marianne McAleer at the Sidmouth Folk Festival in England. One of her song moved me to the extent that she stepped forward to hold my hand. No greater testimony to the unifying force of music, and generous Irish nature.

II – Rock ’n’ Roll

Cross the Atlantic for a twentieth century musical revolution, led mainly by African-Americans and Jews. Beginning with the 1920s New Orleans Jazz of bands like Jelly Roll Morton, simultaneously of Leadbelly and other formerly enslaved Blacks who sang the Blues to combat sadness; there sprang up gradually the modern jazz of men such as Charlie Parker, Tamla, Motown, Atlantic Soul, R&B, Trance, Dance, Rap and onwards.

Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight Irene’, is magnetic like so many Blues numbers, and inspired Johnny Cash and folk supremo Pete Seeger to sing and perform it.

A high point of traditional Jazz was highlighted to me by an Exeter estate agent I once knew bursting into tears after listening to ‘Blue Horizon’ from the 1945 Blue Note recordings of Sidney Bechet, then on the crest of his soprano sax playing career. Dancing to the English Traditional band of Chris Barber in the late sixties, was also an unforgettable experience, confirming what joy Afro-Americans have bestowed on mankind.

From the Atlantic soul most must know the enveloping power of Percy Sledge’s ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’, but few can have sat down to supper with a daughter, Acacia, thinking the cream would be an eight-year-old bottle of Chablis, only for her to press the repeat buttons so as to hear Otis Redding’s ‘Those Arms of Mine’, twenty-seven times!

The legendary Louis Armstrong, trumpet hors concours and entertainer, becomes a symbol of the African-American love of life and laughter, with words like: ‘all music is folk music – I ain’t ever heard no horse sing’.

Erykah Badu is a sublime example of her community’s musical talents; aged seven, given a piano, she wrote twenty songs in the first week, crying ‘Music is kind of sick’. So free from modern constraints that she had three children by different men, home educating them in subjects like quantum physics and rare languages.

But is music now in poor health? And does technology help or hinder?

The early years of American pop/rock/country saw not only Buddy Holly, John Denver, but also Otis Redding die in plane crashes, in part down to having to play too many gigs. Since then, how many stars, and their fans have ruined their lives with drink and drugs, which is almost unthinkable in the folk and Classical spheres?

The deafening, distorting sound of PA equipment is another downside, or thrill, depending on how you respond. The plethora of songs and possibilities for delight is illustrated by my son Hawthorn pointing out how I can put four hundred thousand songs on a hard drive, which he worked out would take thirty-four years, listening three-and-a-half-hours daily, to get through. The fever of this passion is shown by almost two hundred thousand tickets for the Glastonbury Festival selling out within fifty minutes.

III – Musical Contrasts

Two countries can act as a sublime contrast. Have you been lucky enough to hear French chanson or the mystical, almost metaphysical sound of Indian sitar or sarod, grounded by the drone of a tambura, which with the light intricate drumming of a tabla leads to a deeply relaxed meditative state?

Thanks to my third daughter Natasha (you need family, as well as friends, to make you explore music), I tried to learn how to sing. Then sing in a classical raga mode. Talk about a revelation: going back to the first few words about complete absolute freedom, it is almost what singing Indian classical ragas allows, except that you move in the seven note, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Da Ni scale.

I was taught by a Frenchman Gilles Petit, who can sing, dance, play any instrument from sitar to trumpet like an angel: but then he gives music by many routes a spiritual dimension. However, to learn how to sing ragas is a lifetime’s devotion, as with sitar. So beguiling an instrument that the Beatles combined with Ravi Shankar.

Taking their elegant language, their refinement, joie de vivre, the French gave in Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ an incomparable lightening of heart. Could this be what the seventy-percent of English people, who are reportedly depressed at some point daily, require?

As a young man seeing Maurice Chevalier at the Paris Olympia sing not only with voice but elbow took me into shocked joy; listening to Gilbert Becaud’s ‘Et Maintenant’ was dramatic, thrilling, statement about despair: ‘And now what I am going to do with the rest of my life … All the nights for what, for who / And this morning  returns for nothing … I’m going to burn all these nights / In the early morning I will hate you … I really have nothing to do’.

Hardly understanding a word, I was, nonetheless, rivetted. The great signposts in this exhilarating genre are Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, and Jacque Brel’s ‘Ne me quitte pas’, which offer romanticism gone wild: ‘I will offer you pearls made of rain, coming from countries where it never rains …. I will ride right there to see you dancing and smiling … Let me become the shadow of your shadow.

Ignore French musical culture at your peril!

IV – Belcanto

An Italian baritone born in 1856 at the crest of the Belcanto age, whose voice was marked by coruscating runs, and an ever-golden tone, Mattia Battistini shone in the French opera of Gounod and his singing of Gomod’s song Le Soir is perfection.

Alas Ed Gardner’s description: ‘Opera is when someone gets stabbed in the back and instead of bleeding he sings’ only hints at how exciting, ravishing that world can be. Through withdrawing from the stage for the three summer months, Battistini, uniquely, practised seven hours a day: how many could have matched his thirty-seven encores after one legendary recital?!

Sadly what was Grand Opera is now a shadow of its spectacular singing: the last truly great tenor Jussi Bjorling died in 1960. But at least the English Touring Opera still capture its magic through superb direction and staging.

I suggested you find De Lucia, the tenor, and Claudia Muzio, the soprano, to discover how expressive this art form can be.

Rarely nowadays one has the luck of hearing a throwback to the golden nineteenth century in the form of Ileana Cotrubas. In an almost unknown opera at Glyndebourne, her singing of Cavalli’s ‘Calisto’ was so warm, beautiful, captivating that she became the recipient of a case of vintage champagne (Louis Roederer, Blanc to Blanc, 1966).

Like Clara Haskil, and Alan Hacker, she has a sublime affinity with Mozart. If you are switched off by Classical piano, I doubt you could have resisted Clara’s playing it, I was certainly converted – in Chartres’s Cathedral Museum!

V – Czech and English

How does one yield to another musical genre? Is it great music or wonderful playing that is the key to Aladdin’s Cave?

Alan Hacker, the clarinetist and conductor, is a glowing example of what is possible. Rather than giving up after being paralysed by a virus from the chest downwards as a young man, he became what William Mann in The Times called ‘a musician to be treasured in our midst’. He was surely the equal of Anton Stadler and Richard Mulhfeld for whom Mozart and Brahms wrote renowned clarinet quintets, equally adept on an 1804 boxwood clarinet and the modern Boehm.

He inspired modern composers, taught so wisely at York Univeristy and Dartington, conducted both symphonies, some with original instruments, and opera – including Mozart in Stuttgart.

When interviewed by the BBC, in saying there were too many notes nowadays, he pinpointed how virtuoso fast runs by players had sidelined the prime of music: tone colour. The descending triplet in the finale of his first recording of Mozart’s Quintet is an exquisite example of his playing. But as the saying goes, ‘Behind every man …’ there is no doubt that his wife Margaret contributed hugely.

If you feel reluctant to move from orchestral to chamber music, begin with Schubert’s String Quintet (the first one that hit me) live from Prades with the Vegh Quartet and Casals, or a 2015 recording of Franck’s violin sonata in its cello version with the aformentioned Jan Skdrlik and Petra Besa. These Czech artists, like many from that land, are quite out of the common run; so don’t visit Prague only for the beer! The Lobkowitz Palace there has both two Canaletto paintings of London in the seventeenth century, and Beethoven manuscripts, surviving there after the court supported him at a critical moment.

Due to Rock/Pop dominance the extraordinarily rich and human folk scene, except in Ireland, is marginalized. However, the English put on almost three hundred folk festivals annually, much enlivened by new young talent and encouraged by the ground-breaking Spiers and Boden.

The breadth on offer is enthralling: Roy Bailey, an Emeritus Professor at Sheffield University, became a pioneer in songs about social justice – ‘Alyandabu’ with haunting harmonica from Rory Mcleod, is about an aboriginal woman who, when her rich husband died, and having had her children confiscated, fights back, is a marvel. Similarly Pete Morton’s ‘Two Brothers’.

I don’t care who started it, I just want to see you play
I just want to see you smiling in the glory of his day
… Israel give him his hall back. Just stop all the noise
I can see your two very overtired little boys
… Palestine I saw you kick him, Israel sit still
… Put aside all your anger, all the sorrow and all the pain
… One day in the future this won’t mean a thing
…. …. , as brothers you’ll sing

A tour de force of a prolific, rhythmically-alive singer-songwriter who has transformed traditional songs like ‘Little Musgrave’.

The Folk World in the U.K. breathes balance, with song and dance, moderation and harmony, after the miracle, around 1900, of Cecil Sharp collecting, in only fifteen years, six thousand songs and dances; Rev Sabine Baring Gould got a further thousand plus, while Alfred Williams accumulated hundreds.

Sharp shows what we need to recover in music by noting that at the end of the nineteenth century folk song in rural areas was still an unbroken tradition. Whether labourer, thresher, cowherd, ploughman, pinder, goose woman, woodcutter, shepherd, cress-gatherer or bird-scaring boy, all trudged home to the accompaniment of song. Indeed in 1800, the poet John Clare’s father knew by heart over one hundred ballads.

But English folk’s salient feature is humour. Thus Colum Sands between songs always tells funny tales, including one about his aunt, who, aged seventy-five after getting electricity for the first time, would only turn on the light to find the matches to light the oil lamp. Or when playing to the Inuits of Northern Canada, he met a woman who told him that in her tribe the men outnumbered the women ten to one. So he said: ‘The odds are good then’. She quick as a flash, riposted ‘Yes the odds are good but the goods are odd’. The same element is evident in Roy Bailey’s famous children’s songs: Kangaroos like to hop / Zebras like to run / Horses like to trot / But I like to lie in the sun.

And of course there is Martin Wyndham Read, the great discoverer of Australian folk music, which he sings almost Belcanto; he has a store of hilarious stories from sheep shearers.

VI – Musicals

In the world of musicals does ‘Singing in the Rain’ not stand supreme, for making you feel happy? And is that what we seek from it? But as with all music, hearing it live is so much more entrancing.

Umojo, a two hour explosion of South African black singers celebrating a century of music, caused the entire audience to go wild with applause at the end when I went to see it. For your romantic hunger, there is ‘Le Concert’, a French film featuring Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concert;  just as pulsating is ‘Strictly Ballroom’ where the pasodoble reigns, amidst much humour.

Without the Jewish people, music would be a shadow of itself, in pop/shows/Classical: Bernstein’s ‘West Side Story’, is one such marvelous testament. Try not to miss hearing Fritz Kreisler the violinist, revered in his time; will one of his stature ever appear again? His 1926 recording of the Beethoven violin Concerto is superlative in a field of one hundred or more versions. Might he give you a longed for musical breakthrough?

*******

A rounded perspective on music is incomplete without surveying other animals. The moving and beautiful film ‘The Story of the Weeping Camel’, set in the Gobi desert of Mongolia features yurts and people in magnificently bright clothing. When a she camel after a long and difficult birth refuses to suckle her new born the small village calls in the town musician with a small cello-like instrument to play, whilst a woman sings. Within minutes a magical transformation is achieved!

Recently Kathryn Roberts began her Cornish recital with the sad tale of the whale that sings at 52 Hertz, a frequency making it impossible to find a mate. And you can hear dolphins in Valencia, City of Arts and Sciences through a PA system singing to one another. How many other living creatures share this staggering gift of ours?

As a farewell, let Beecham take the stage once more. Probably the finest and certainly the wittiest conductor from the UK, and much loved on the Continent by composers and concert-goers alike, at his seventieth birthday celebration the telegrams read out included one from Richard Strauss, whose operas he brought to Covent Garden and Sibelius whom he championed, after which Beecham cried ‘Not Mozart?!’ Has there ever lived a more vivid interpreter of that man’s perfect music? I doubt it.

The featured image of Richard Wilson sitting on the shoulders of his son Hawthorn was taken by Toby Sirota at Meribel in Les Trois Vallees, France this year.

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