Archive for the 'history' Category

Great Masters of the Musical – Part Two

Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin certainly knew how to write tunes. But as Jonathan Webster discovers in the second part of his survey of the century’s greatest musicals, these popular composers are at last gaining respect as writers of ‘serious’ music.

Gershwin, Porter and Berlin are excellent songwriters. But think – where did you first hear their songs? Chances are it was in the jazz club arena rather than in the Broadway theatre or Hollywood cinema. Many of the greatest showstoppers have been taken up by pop and jazz singers and arguably have received their greatest interpretations from a Fitzgerald, Holiday or Sinatra. But what has happened to the shows they were designed for? Here we look at these great songs in the original context of their largely forgotten shows.

The word musical is an all-embracing term which has come to mean many things to different music-lovers. For some it’s a frothy operetta-style entertainment, as epitomised by the works of composers such as Franz Lehár and Sigmund Romberg; for others it signifies the era of the film musical – a form which dawned in spectacular fashion with the 1930’s celluloid showcases for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In our last issue we covered the post-war Broadway musical; now we wind back the clock to the musical comedy between 1900 and 1950.

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Great Masters of the Musical – Part One

The Broadway musical is at an all time high – opera singers can’t stop recording them. What exactly is the fascination and which shows stand up to the best operas? In the first of a two-part special, Jonathan Webster looks at music since 1945.

The Broadway and Hollywood musical holds a huge attraction for both pop and opera singers. In the 1960s opera diva Joan Sutherland stunned music critics at the height of her career by making one of the first crossover discs, a collection of Noel Coward songs. Since then, and often to huge controversy, Kiri Te Kanawa, the Three Tenors, Dawn Upshaw and now Bryn Terfel have followed in the footsteps of Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra and Howard Keel. But it is not just about thumping good tunes. Music theatre acts as a superb mirror of popular culture. From the Shavian wit of Coward and Porter lyrics to the streetwise rawness and orchestral sophistication of West Side Story this is a genre which cannot be overlooked by anyone who appreciates good music, be it pop or classical. We start our two-part history of the musical at the end of the Second World War.

America’s post-war feel-good factor
By 1945 America and its allies had as good as won the war. Militarily and economically, the United States was now undisputably the most powerful nation on earth; and in a neat bit of synchronicity, Broadway, the hub of New York’s theatre district, became the heart and soul of the post-war musical – a position it was to retain right up until the early 1970s. Amid the worldwide rejoicing that victory brought, one musical seemed to sum up this new-found optimism better than any other: Oklahoma.

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Wielders of the Baton

Whether they play different continents on consecutive nights and record everything possible with any orchestra, or loathe the limelight but always cause a sensation, conductors of the twentieth century come in all shapes and guises. Michael Tanner gives us the score.

The great age of the conductor, or the age of the cult of the great conductor, coincided with the rise fo the gramophone. The relationship between art and technology has been, here as elsewhere, fraught. Many of the finest conductors loathed recording, especially when they had to stop every four minutes, as in the age of the 78rpm record. Both Toscanini’s and Furtwängler’s greatest records, with a few exceptions, tend to be of live performances. But with the advent of the LP and of recording tape, some conductors became more attached to the studio than the concert hall, and some even learned scores in order to record them, rather than setting down, after many years, the fruits of their experience. And as recording techniques became ever more sophisticated, it was the sheer sound rather than the meaning of the music which absorbed much of their attention. The most conspicuous case of that was Herbert von Karajan (1908-89), who made a phenomenal number of records and became more interested in the control room than the podium. The other crucial way in which records affected conducting, as they did to a lesser extent other modes of music making, was that the educated musical public began going to concerts, or buying new recordings of familiar works, with the experience of many other performances fresh in their minds. Correlatively, younger conductors naturally tended to listen to the recordings of the masters to hear what they sounded like, and either formed resolutions to play in the same way – a striking example was the Italian Guido Cantelli, killed in an air crash in 1956, who modelled himself very successfully on his idol Toscanini – or determined that they would be different. But as the number of Beethoven Fifths increased, it became difficult to be different from all of them, so some very strange recordings resulted from this need to be individual. It was this factor, too, rather than any burning artistic zeal, which led to the cult of period instruments and ‘authentic’ performances.

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The Cult of the Maestro

After Wagner took conducting to new heights, baton waving was accompanied by tantrums, assaults and bitter rivalry. Michael Tanner discovers why some time keepers turned into dictators.

Conducting, now the most glamorous of all musical occupations, only got going in the form we now know it comparatively recently. All that most people have heard about its early history is that the French composer of opera ballets Jean Baptiste Lully (1632-87) died from gangrene after accidentally stabbing his foot with the cane that he was using to keep time with. More recent stars of the podium, such as Klemperer and Solti, have sustained injuries from emphatic gesturing within a confined space, but no more mortalities have been recorded; in some cases I wish they had.

In fact, until the middle of the nineteenth century the function of the conductor was to keep the players in the orchestra together, and if he could, he would conduct from the keyboard, or the first violin would give the lead. The whole notion of the conductor as a person collaborating with the composer to recreate a work originated with Wagner. While he was in charge of musical life in Dresden, during the 1840s, he raised the standards of orchestral playing to previously undreamt of heights. More importantly, he began to develop the concept of the inspired interpretation of a work, which, as a great composer himself, he was in a unique position to do. With Beethoven as his idol, he set to work on performing the nine symphonies in such a way that they could be felt to embody a whole view of life. The climax of this activity was a performance of the Ninth Symphony on Palm Sunday 1846. previously judged as unplayable and lunatic, it became a symbol of creative endeavour mixed with hope and joy. As an artistic struggle to achieve a masterpiece it reflected and served as an incentive for suffering humanity to achieve its potential.

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The Trouble with Critics!

Who are the best music critics and why? Our reviewer Jeremy Nicholas revels in that good old love-hate relationship between musicians and critics. He finds both pearls of wisdom and embarrassing blunders…

I first became a music critic at the age of three. I sat for hours with my right ear pressed up against the speaker of the family radiogram, listening over and over again to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (I still have the ancient LP – Carl Schuricht on Decca LXT2513). Clearly, I judged it to be an interesting and stimulating experience or I’d have been out in the garden beating up my younger brother playing cowboys and Indians.

An innate love of music and an endless curiosity about its manifold delights are the prime requisites for a music critic. But what are the other essentials? Do they need any qualifications? In Berlioz’s words (himself one of the finest critics of his day): ‘Where do they come from? At what age are they sent to the slaughter house? What is done with their bones?… Do they have females, and young? How many of them handled the brush before being reduced to the broom?’

Well, there have certainly been very few females. Like record collecting, reviewing seems to be a predominantly male occupation. You don’t have to be a composer. Dr Johnson reasoned that ‘you may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.’ It’s a truism that a critic should know something about all music and all about some. He should also, I think, be a professional amateur: professional in the sense that he needs to be highly trained in the history, composition and performance of music and in the ability to express his thoughts clearly in a stimulating fashion; amateur in the true sense of the word – he should remain a lover of music and its craft.

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