Exploring the Shelves, 17: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Petite Suite de Concert’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 June 2020 under Inspirations, Musings  •  Leave a comment

Recently, at a Zoom meeting of my piano club, one of our members played Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Petite Suite de Concert. It was new to most of us, but we were all struck by its charm.

I remember being puzzled when I first heard of a composer called Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Wasn’t that the name of a Romantic poet? Oh no, wait: the poet was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Was there really a composer whose name juggled those same three words? (In fact, it seems the choice of name, and its similarity to the poet’s, was a jeu d’esprit on the part of Alice, the composer’s mother.)  Then there was the further surprise of learning that Samuel Coleridge Taylor was an unusual figure in the Victorian era, a black composer of classical music.

His father was an African doctor from Sierra Leone, and Alice was his white English mother. After studying medicine in London, Coleridge Taylor’s father returned to Africa before his son was born. The boy (called Coleridge by his family) grew up with his mother and grandparents, who encouraged his musical gifts. By the age of 15 he was enrolled in the Royal College of Music, studying composition with Sir Charles Stanford, who had a high opinion of him. Soon he came to the attention of Elgar, who helped him get his music published and performed. Elgar’s great friend Jaeger, the inspiration for ‘Nimrod’ in the Enigma Variations, said that Coleridge Taylor was ‘a genius I feel sure’.

A printer’s error on a concert programme accidentally gave the young composer the double-barrelled surname of Coleridge-Taylor, a name he decided to use professionally.

While still a student he composed the work which made him famous: Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, a cantata for choir and orchestra, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem. Sir Charles Stanford conducted the premiere in 1898 and the work was immediately taken up by choirs of all kinds.  Coleridge-Taylor died in 1912 at the age of only 37, but in the decades after his death, Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast was as popular and as often performed as Handel’s Messiah. Between 1929 and 1939 there were annual staged performances of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall, with huge choirs and colourful scenery. Whenever it is revived today, choirs say they love singing this tuneful and atmospheric music.

The Petite Suite de Concert for piano (1911) has four movements, in a style somewhere between Elgar and Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). Coleridge-Taylor knows how to tread lightly; his music is sincere, but often seems to look ahead to the salon pieces of Billy Mayerl – designed to uplift rather than to stir. Its gentle array of melodies and dance episodes stay in the ear for a while afterwards. The atmosphere of the tea lounge is never far away; perhaps the Petite Suite was aimed at a certain sort of audience, but its musical appeal is wider than that.

It’s incredible to think that at this time, Stravinsky was about to unleash The Rite of Spring on the musical world.

Zoom music-making and chamber music

Posted by Susan Tomes on 16 June 2020 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

Zoom music-making has been a feature of lockdown. Hardly a week passes without someone sending me a link to a recording:  Zoom choirs, Zoom orchestras and ensembles, each performer singing or playing away in their own home and on their own little screen.

To create a composite whole, each person usually has to record their individual part and upload it to be combined with others. Until that’s done, nobody can hear the total effect.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Zoom music-making has brought a sense of community and positivity to many people during the lonely weeks of lockdown. It’s remarkable that such a thing can happen at all, and it’s a great use of modern technology.

However, it makes me sad to think that people may think that that’s what collaborative music-making is always like – parallel parts played simultaneously, without knowledge of one another. Because for me the great pleasure and interest of chamber music is the way we influence one another in real time as we play.

You start off by preparing your own individual part, of course. But the collaborative magic begins when you’re in the same space as the other musicians and you hear how they’re playing their parts. As their ideas emerge through the music, you might think, ‘Ah, I like that. I could join in with that colour, that mood.’  You alter the way you’re playing because of what you hear. If you have a strong feeling about how something should go, and you play it in a  convincing way, you’ll hear others altering their way of playing to join in with you, to amplify your vision.

As you hear all the parts in their proper context, you develop a sense of perspective not available when you’re practising alone at home. You may suddenly realise that your individual line is not the most important one, and you drop down in the layers of music – or you may realise that it is the most important, and you can surge to the forefront.  The tone and tempo that your fellow players choose, the varieties of loud and soft they want to try, the emotions they want to bring out –  chamber musicians send out these musical messages with faith that other players will respond constructively. In this way, the individual parts become more than separate lines – they become dynamic and inter-dependent.

It’s a bit like a conversation – a good conversation, anyway – where someone speaks and the next person’s contribution is influenced by what’s just been said, and the way it was said.

In a conversation, however, one person speaks at a time. The beauty of collaborative music is that several people can ‘speak’ at the same time, but still be responsive to the others. You’re not just saying what you want to say – you’re factoring in what others want to say as well. How you go round musical corners together, how you approach high and low points, how you can contribute to the energy of the performance – these are discoveries you make together in rehearsal, and sometimes even more so in performance.

When your antennae are finely tuned to one another, this kind of real-time adjustment and blending of ideas feels like not just a conversation, but a microcosm of the way social interaction should work.

Exploring the Shelves, 16: Poulenc’s Novelettes

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 June 2020 under Inspirations  •  Leave a comment

Francis Poulenc is one of those composers whose personality shows very clearly in his music. Some composers, you sense, enjoy the process of creating a pure compositional line swept clean of their personal feelings. We may know from reading their biographies that they were complicated people, but you wouldn’t know it from their music. Was Mozart sad when he wrote such-and-such a sad aria? Or could he just write in whatever spirit he wanted, regardless of his actual mood? Some composers had such a grip on the formal beauty and logic of their music that they were able to disappear behind it.

Not so with Poulenc, whose blend of sentiment, wit, charm, and casual flippancy was probably a good self-portrait. He had many sides to his personality; the Poulenc of the religious choral music or opera (Dialogues des Carmelites) can be extremely serious. In his piano music, however, perhaps because of the piano’s association with cabaret and popular music, he let himself be capricious and mercurial.

The three Novelettes are not really a set – no 1 was written in 1927, no 2 in 1928, and no 3 came over thirty years later in 1960. The first and third Novelettes are very similar in style despite being written so far apart. No 2 is a spiky ballet which recalls Cocteau and the cheeky dissonances of the French cabaret style.

Sometimes Poulenc sets out to create a hushed and lovely atmosphere, but then can’t resist cutting through it with a callous march theme or a banal little jig. Often, when he has immersed us in warm and luscious harmonies, he cancels them with acid chords which seem to say: ‘Think I was showing you my true feelings? Ha ha! Think again. This is all just a game to me.’

At the top of the third Novelette, he quotes a couple of bars from El Amor Brujo by his friend Manuel de Falla, and takes them as inspiration for his theme. De Falla’s theme is in a swaying 7/8 time. Poulenc’s tribute is in a simple 3/8. In other words, he takes a distinctively Spanish rhythm and irons it out, making it more ordinary.

Poulenc was full of these contradictions. ‘I hate rubato’, he said in 1954. ‘ Never prolong or shorten a note value.’ On the other hand, he wanted his music bathed in lots and lots of pedal: ‘People never use enough pedal’, he complained. These two instructions are not compatible. If you bathe everything in pedal, some note values will inevitably be prolonged.

He was also strict about tempo. Three times in the Novelettes he forbids slowing down: ‘Sans ralentir’. ‘Surtout sans ralentir’. ‘Absolument sans ralentir’. All very well, but these all occur in places where his music would naturally suggest a bit of gentle leeway. With such slightly perverse guidance we’re halfway to Erik Satie’s world of contradictory instructions – designed, perhaps, to poke fun at us for taking composers so seriously.

‘Put butter in the sauce!’ was Poulenc’s advice to pianists. But sauce is not a dish on its own. What is the sauce for?

Could classical musicians be ‘radically local’?

Posted by Susan Tomes on 9 June 2020 under Concerts, Musings, Travel  •  1 Comment

We’re hearing a lot about the days of heedless international travel being over for classical musicians. In today’s Guardian, Charlotte Higgins does an admirable job of summing up some aspects of the situation.

It’s worth remembering that darting about to play in San Francisco one night and Frankfurt the next is quite a recent thing. Not so long ago, if a renowned musician from New York was invited to play in London, they’d spend weeks crossing the Atlantic on a boat. They’d stay in London for some weeks to make it worthwhile. And going further back in history, musicians had to cope with enormous discomforts when they travelled from city to city. After a bone-shaking journey in a horse-drawn carriage from Salzburg to Vienna, Mozart no doubt wanted to stay put for a while.

Coronavirus and its effect on public life has made us all wonder how we could do things differently. ‘The immediate future for classical music may be radically local,’ writes Charlotte Higgins, ‘with small groups of musicians bringing their art to communities outside of traditional concert halls’. Which many of us would be perfectly happy to do, if there were a way of making a living from doing so.

All through my career I have been laughed at by colleagues when I said I’d be quite happy to play all my concerts in a hall at the end of my street and be home by 10pm for a glass of wine by the fire (instead of creeping wearily into a darkened house at 2am after a long drive down the motorway). They laughed because they knew you could never get a local audience night after night in the same hall. You might be lucky to fill that hall once a year.

At the start of the 20th century, there was plenty for musicians to do locally. There was live music in hotels, restaurants, music halls, cinemas, ballrooms, theatres. There was Gilbert and Sullivan, dance, opera. Palm Court orchestras played light music one day, classical overtures the next. Lyons Corner Houses employed live musicians in all their establishments. This, of course, was at a time when in order to hear music you had to go to where someone was playing it. But those days are gone. Restaurants and hotels now use Spotify, YouTube and so on.

Now, professional performers cannot make a life by performing in the place where they live. Many of them teach, but performing is what they have trained to do and what they yearn to do. They know the audience in their home town isn’t big enough to support multiple performances by the same people. So they have to travel to where the audiences are.

Somewhere else, perhaps in many other places dotted around the world, there are audiences who like to hear you every year or two. Gradually you build up a network of those places. You have no control over how far apart they are or when they are likely to invite you, so you end up with a patchwork of concerts.

Ideally you’d get out a map and arrange your concerts in a sensible geographical order. In my experience that is rarely possible. One place only has concerts on Mondays. Another only puts on concerts in the summer. A third only has space for you 2 years from now on a particular Saturday night. You’ve wanted to play there for years, so you commit to the date. Then another concert series invites you for the night before that, 500 miles away. Before you know it, you’re zigzagging across the country or continent like a pinball.

Now that Lyons Corner Houses and their ilk have gone, there’s only one way I can see that musicians could stay ‘radically local’. For that, we’d have to borrow an idea from Scandinavia, where some musicians are employed on government schemes to live and perform in parts of the country not well served with live music. They are employed almost as if they were civil servants, but they are ‘civil musicians’, if you like.

I once met a string quartet in Norway whose job was to live in a rural region (a spectacular one) and play a certain number of concerts in the community. They were given modern houses and generously funded by the state so they could play concerts for free. Local people enjoyed having ‘their quartet’. The musicians’ workload wasn’t onerous – due notice had been taken of their need to practise and rehearse together.  Their task was to establish a presence in the community, do some work with local young musicians, and play a handful of free concerts every month.

In today’s Guardian article, the artistic director of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg is quoted as saying, “We are not afraid, because culture has great importance in the public realm in Germany and we cannot be allowed to fail.”

By contrast, we classical musicians in the UK are afraid. If only we could feel so secure!

Exploring the Shelves, 15: ‘Rustle of Spring’ by Christian Sinding

Posted by Susan Tomes on 5 June 2020 under Musings  •  2 Comments

Here’s a neglected piece! Years ago, ‘Rustle of Spring’ was a favourite with amateur pianists, often of the older generation – ‘Uncle So-and-So’s party piece’, to be trotted out (possibly in abridged form) at parties. But I haven’t seen it on a concert programme for ages.

For something so virtuosic-sounding, some of its pages are gratifyingly – well, not easy, but possible to play. The ‘rustle’ is created by simple arpeggios rippling in the right hand while the melody flows beneath. When the action switches to the left hand, and the arpeggios become more complicated, the piece can slip out of a less secure player’s grasp. But the arpeggios can be simplified, and before long we surge into the reprise, where the effect of the opening may be enjoyed anew.

‘Rustle’ is not really the word for this torrent of notes, more like a waterfall plunging down a mountainside. There’s something quite Wagnerian about the way it bursts into being, and Wagner probably also inspired the way it ratchets up energy by repeating phrases a step higher, and a step higher still. During the reprise, you begin to wish Sinding had thought of a way to vary the material, but the piece doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Christian Sinding was a Norwegian composer who lived from 1856 (the year Robert Schumann died) to 1941, in the middle of the Second World War. He was considered the heir to Grieg, but where Grieg’s reputation has sailed peacefully on, Sinding’s has faded away.

The reason is not primarily to do with his music. In his last decade, Sinding suffered from dementia. Weeks before his death he was alleged to have joined the Norwegian Nazi Party. At a Nazi meeting he was proudly introduced as a well-known cultural figure who had joined the Party. But historians later found that he may never have signed the membership form, and he may never have understood what he was joining. A witness at that Nazi meeting remembered seeing the 85-year-old Sinding on the platform and thinking that he looked bewildered.

After the War, Norway turned its back on Nazi sympathisers. Sinding was quietly dropped from concert programmes and broadcasts. This was probably an unfair fate.  ‘Rustle of Spring’ shows a captivating grasp of Romantic piano style, but it’s the only piece of Sinding’s I’ve ever come across.