Posts Tagged 'humour'

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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Power of the Word

Librettos, seen ‘cold’ on the page, can appear preposterous; but, Michael Oliver demonstrates, the librettist’s craft is as great as any playwright’s.

What makes a good libretto? A cynic might reply with the old maxim that if anything’s too stupid to be spoken then let it be sung, no doubt adding that quite a few marvellous operas have appalling libretti. Take Il Trovatore, for example: two rivals in love, unaware that they’re brothers; a crazed all gypsy woman who throws the wrong baby on the fire! Preposterous!

In fact, the libretto of Il Trovatore is perfectly suited to its purpose, a superbly crafted machine for bringing irreconcilable emotions into violent conflict: a machine for manufacturing pretexts for arias. Just what Verdi wanted and needed. A good libretto is one that inspires a composer to produce his finest music. It’s incomplete without the music, and to criticise a libretto without taking account of the music is like condemning a recipe without tasting the dish.

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Only When I Laugh

Michael Oliver either travels through the byways of the repertory or finds a fresh angle to a musical issue – armed with a new CD of Britten’s ‘Albert Herring’, he asks can music be funny?

Have you ever laughed during a string quartet or a symphony? There are comic songs that are genuinely funny, of course, and laughter is by no means unknown in opera; though even there, come to think of it, it’s often the words or the dramatic situation that make us laugh, not the music itself. And have you noticed that operatic or song-recital jokes are often pretty feeble, things that would scarcely raise a wintry smile in a television sitcom? We’re reacting, perhaps, with a mixture of surprise and relief that laughter is permitted even in the august surroundings of an opera house or a recital room.

That, of course, is one of the basic ingredients of humour: the comically absurd contradiction of expectation. Maybe we don’t laugh much nowadays at the final ‘Quodlibet’ in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but Bach surely meant us to: the phrase that recurs again and again just when we’re expecting his own theme to return is a rather vulgar tavern song called ‘Cabbage and turnips have driven me away’. It’s not a tune that we recognise from evenings in the local, but even so the joke doesn’t fall quite flat: the change of mood from the earlier variations is obvious, the way that Bach’s phrases, no matter which way they turn, end up with cabbages and turnips is… well, if not hysterically funny, at least engagingly good-humoured, all the more so after such a prodigious demonstration of contrapuntal skill.

Continue reading ‘Only When I Laugh’

Wordless Wednesday: Catfight chutzpah

Wordless Wednesday: First day at work

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