Posts Tagged 'classical'

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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Music for the Silver Screen

You can’t talk about twentieth-century music without acknowledging the cinema. As the music of Rebel without a Cause and Jules et Jim comes out on CD, Peter Davey tells the story of sound and vision, taking in composes lured to Hollywood, and how the best film-score writers stand up to the greatest classics.

Can you imagine Jaws without John Williams’s menacing, accelerating theme as the shark’s fin makes its first appearance on screen? Or how much less shocking Janet Leigh’s shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho would be if it wasn’t accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s piercing, jagged-edge orchestral score? ‘Film music’, said Herrmann, ‘can intensify the inner thoughts of the characters, can invest a scene with terror or gaiety, can propel narrative forward or slow it down, and is the communicating link between screen and audience.’ In the endless variety of music scores you will find everything from the heavily symphonic, swooning love music of Steiner’s Gone with the Wind to the circus polkas and Sicilian rhythms of Nino Rota’s La Strada and Godfather series.

This month’s new film Paradise Road is set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp where inmates sing arrangements of classical music. Its soundtrack of appropriated classics will no doubt thrive as Mozart did after Amadeus, Mahler after Death in Venice and Rachmaninov after Brief Encounter, and, most recently, Shine. But what about those composers who write especially for the cinema? What is their greatest work and which films should we watch to appreciate their best music?

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Music of the Movies

With the bestselling success of the Titanic soundtrack, film music has never been more popular. Michael Scott Rohan hails an end to snobbery about film scores.

Two bands played on while Titanic sank – one on the ship, the other on the soundtrack. It’s this second band which really drives home the drama. Alfred Hitchcock once described an innocuous scene of people chatting in a sunny room – and its total transformation when the audience discovered there was a corpse behind the door. Music can subtly subvert that innocent atmosphere even before the audience knows anything – ‘reaching out’, as Bernard Herrmann once said, ‘and enveloping all into one single experience’.

This is no mean art to command; and yet over the last half-century the musical establishment has constantly undervalued film scoring. As recently as the late 1960s an otherwise go-ahead young music lecturer informed me that the Sinfonia Antarctica couldn’t be a real symphony because it was just ‘cobbled-together film music’. Where did this kind of blindness come from? In considering the answer we can restore credit to some, at least, of cinema’s underrated musical giants.

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How Big Brother Changed Music

Michael Oliver considers the widespread effect of state control on music this century.

Barely two years to the millennium and we still have no idea of how the twenty-first century will view the music of this. Will serialism seem central or just a weird aberration? Of the scores of ‘isms’ currently in vogue which, if any, will survive? Was Stravinsky the century’s Beethoven or is it Meyerbeer? Of one thing we can be quite sure: any judicious history is bound to conclude that totalitarianism had more effect on Western music than any writer or critic; possibly more than even the most influential composer. Italy for over 20 years, Germany for a dozen, Spain and Portugal for half a century, Russia and its satellites for even longer: all were ruled by dictators or totalitarian regimes, and in all of them music was subject to censorship and political control.

The reason that we study history, so they say, is so that we can make sure that it doesn’t repeat itself. The creepily fascinating thing about the great dictators and their attitudes to music is that although they all had much the same effect – music was banned, composers silenced, performers controlled – they each went about it in quite different ways. So if we’re guarding against it in the future, we must keep our eyes peeled.

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Month at a Glance

March 2017
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