Review: Beethoven’s Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide

Beethoven's Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide
Beethoven’s Early Chamber Music: A Listening Guide by Terence O’Grady
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve got to say up front that this is a book written by a musicologist, and as a layperson, I always struggle with the fact that often – not always, but often – in such books, the most exciting aspects of the music seem to be the key changes.

In some ways, this is to be expected, because – after all – most of Beethoven’s early works were written in the classical music forms of Haydn and Mozart, where transitions between keys, tonics, dominants, sonata forms, etc. were largely what the game was about. But, unless you’re listening along with the music – and even then – it can make for somewhat of a dull read.

I should say, O’Grady started to warm up towards the end when he got into the famous opus 18 string quartets, and those six were a great way to finish the book, because they’re all amazing. But on the whole, especially because I’m not that well-up on music, sevenths and dominants and grace notes all started to blur into one.

But, given that it caused me to listen to nearly all of Beethoven’s early chamber music – much of which is beautiful stuff, even if not as game-changing as his famous works – I was grateful for the tour from O’Grady. If he ever wants to do some of the later chamber music, I’ll be happy to come back and have a read.

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The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement III

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Chaos: That’s what I hear in the third movement of the Mahler 9. (Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I was the mixed emotions of a man facing up to death. Movement II was a strange collection of odd dances.

Now we reach the third movement, which – just to warn you upfront – is one of the most difficult and thorny things that Mahler ever composed. It’s the fastest movement in the whole ninth symphony and it’s a highly successful representation of chaos. Like the previous two movements, it consists of a several musical ideas that repeat, varied slightly each time. At the risk of being far too flippant with a serious piece, I think of the three themes as:

  • Counterpoint From Hell (and counterpoint, just as a reminder, is where you have multiple melody lines or tunes stacked on top of each other; it’s like listening to several tunes at the same time, but they all work together)
  • Squeaks of Doom (because there are some pretty obnoxious sounds coming from the woodwinds)
  • The Last Movement Hint, because it’s really a theme to set up the music that you’re going to hear in the last movement

Let’s get cracking.


(0:00) Theme 1 – Counterpoint From Hell (CFH). How do you even describe this? It’s a chugging melody, mostly in the strings, but every other instrument group interjects over the top with angular and harsh-sounding melodies of their own. Somebody said that Mahler threw in so many different instrumental lines here that you feel the music is dense and constricting, as if you can’t move. I’m inclined to agree.

(2:04) Theme 2 – Squeaks Of Doom (SOD). A slightly milder theme arrives at the two-minute mark, but it’s still somewhat strange. Squeaky woodwinds, strange melodic leaps. Nobody likes this stuff. (Well, I don’t, anyway!)

(3:25) Theme 1 – Back to CFH, now with more attitude from the brass and a really horrendous melody line on the woodwinds.

(4:57) Theme 2 – Back to SOD, but this time the French horns take the lead.

(6:32) There’s a big cymbal crash at this point because, with this much noise going on, why not?

(6:39) Theme 3. The trumpet plays a plaintive little tune. This will be transformed into the main theme of the last movement (which, if you kind of like it now, is truly breathtaking when you hear it later, so do come back!). But for now we’ll just call this one the Last Movement Hint (LMH) motif. It’s easy to spot. One long note, followed by four shorter ones. It ends up in a sad collapse at (8:37) with the strings whistling away like monstrous kettles.

(9:11) The LMH returns with a most obnoxious squeak from the oboes.

(9:55) Once more we hear that Last Movement Hint in a more beautiful version (however, more beautiful in the Viennese schmaltz style – it still sounds a bit chintzy – and listen for the collapse in the oboe at 10:22).

(10:33) Things start to pick up and we make a gradual transition.

(10:37) And BOOM! we’re back in Counterpoint From Hell territory again. It’s big, it’s oomphy and it’s in-your-face and it continues for the remaining three minutes.

(12:19) The last minute is particularly spectacular as we reach what one conductor described as “the rush over the cliff”.

The overall effect is to leave you quite breathless …

But all that will change with the fourth movement. So see you soon for that one!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement II

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Movement II is an increasingly raucous country dance. Perhaps something like The Peasant Dance by Pieter Bruegel (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Where We Have Been:  Movement I of the Mahler 9 was a massive trip through Mahler’s mixed emotions about death – peaceful farewells, heroic dreams of overcoming that die away to nothing, and ferocious inner turmoil. We arrived – but only just – at a moment of peace.

Which is then shattered by the next two movements, which can be somewhat grating – and, in fact, they’re deliberately constructed that way. One conductor I heard suggested that the middle two movements are where Mahler is testing the peace that he arrived at in the first movement to see if it can last. You might find that a helpful way to think about it.

Another way I like to explain it to myself is that he is looking over his life and realising how much of it is just meaningless and trivial grind. (And don’t we all have moments like that?) And so Movement II resembles the trivial and Movement III is most definitely the grind. But have a listen and see what you think.

The second movement, to listen to, is like a slightly crazy throw-back to the old minuets of the past (those early movements that later became scherzos), in that it features quite distinctive dance forms.

(0:00) Dance 1 – Who says that bassoons can’t be funny? It’s a fussy sort of dance that has the rest of the orchestra join in (0:18) to create a sort of big, galumphing country dance. (Or as Mahler says in his description: “Rather Clumsy and Very Coarse”.) It’s deliberately designed to sound unsophisticated and peasant. (Like the constant flicks on the French horns, as if they really only know how to play two notes.) It’s worth noting the little run-up that the bassoon begins with, because it recurs throughout the movement, almost indicating that the bassoon is going on a journey.

(2:33) Dance 2 – This is a much more vigorous thing that starts on the strings. It has a kind of strange, leaping quality to it. “DA. Da. Da-da.” (3:43) Especially fun is the raucous brass oom-pah that kicks in. (4:07) With a slightly cartoony effect, you can hear the little opening run-up from Dance 1, trying its best to keep up with the wildness of Dance 2. It reminds me of that bit in Fantasia where the little mushroom can’t keep up with the bigger mushrooms.

(5:10) Dance 3 – much mellower. But listen carefully, and you will note that it features the two-note Farewell motif from Movement 1, as a subtle nod to where we’ve been. (Lest you think Mahler has completely forgotten what this symphony is about.) (5:40) A positively cutesy moment in the middle with a ridiculous amount of trills.

(6:40) Dance 2. But it never quite gets back to the raucous brass part, which is a bit sad.

(8:01) Dance 3 again.

(9:44) Dance 1 again with even more woodwind silliness. This is also the chamber music bit because everything gets stripped down to just a few instruments.

(10:42) Things start to speed up and we sneakily segue into Dance 2. (11:50) Which gets more rude and brassy … because who doesn’t love cymbals?

(12:50) … until we somehow sneakily end up back in Dance 1 again. I can’t put my finger on how Mahler does it, but the dance just sounds a bit more worldly-wise. (14:18) It collapses in a strange little heap and then dies out in a strange nether-world somewhere in the region of a low bassoon and a French horn. (It’ll make sense when you hear it.)

(15:09) And then, like a determined little adventurer arriving home from a big day at town, but having learned a lot about life, the little Dance 1 ends gracefully and humorously.

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 9: Movement I

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The first movement of the Mahler 9 feels like a tragic farewell. (Farewell by Heinrich Vogeler, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

The first movement is like a series of waves, alternating between three main sounds: a beautiful but melancholy lullaby (Mahler’s calm farewell to life), an aggravated tormented theme that shows his frustration at having to die and, most terrifying of all, a heroic ending to the aggravated theme that collapses – showing musically that no matter how brave you are or how hard you fight, we’re all going to die some day …

Wave 1

(0:00) The motif right at the beginning is important. It’s a bit like Morse code, a Long-Short few notes. Somebody has said (and it’s a great story if it’s true) that Mahler composed into his symphony the sound of his own faulty heartbeat. (Did I mention that he’d been diagnosed with a heart condition shortly before?) We’ll call this the Heartbeat motif anyway, just to identify it. This is then followed by (0:10) a tolling bell sound, low, low on the harp. We’ll call this the Bell motif. They both become important later on.

(0:25) Theme 1 begins. This is the Lullaby. Listen to it’s two-note falling motif. It’s like a combination of the “Ewig, ewig” from Das Lied, or you could also hear it as a two syllable “Leb wohl” (German for farewell). I like to think of it as the Farewell motif. Either way, you can feel that it’s a goodbye. The emphasis is on beautiful-sounding strings in this part.

(2:05) Theme 2 begins. The Aggravated Theme. Still string-heavy to begin with but angsty stuff. Morphs into:

(3:05) The Heroic Theme that fails.

Wave 2

(3:20) Theme 1 again. Much richer and fuller. The brass and woodwinds start to play a larger role here and the music has a grand sweep to much of it.

(5:33) The Aggravated Theme skips straight to the Heroic Ending part. It journeys on in all its magnificence, still giving us hope that maybe this time … ? But, no, it collapses into silence …

(6:43) … and out of the silence come the Heartbeat and the Bell motifs, but now sounding sinister and nasty, on muted trumpets, timpanis and other unpleasant instrument combinations. Notice also that the two-note descending Farewell motif is also present, but it too sounds harsh on that muted trumpet. This snarky-sounding section gradually morphs …

(8:30) … into a hypnotic, woozy section on strings which repeats over and over, while gradually rising. In this symphony, probably more than any other, Mahler takes us to some truly strange places.

Wave 3

(9:01) It then transforms into a gentle, Viennese waltz. This plays as a counterpoint above Theme 1 (meaning that they are two separate tunes layered on top of each other), which is now performed on the horns. The lullaby continues on for a while.

(10:14) The agitated sound breaks through, heralded by some trumpet fanfares on the way. It all gets very big and brassy. I personally find it very exhausting to listen to (too much piccolo maybe?) but then I can’t help wondering, maybe that’s the effect that Mahler wanted this music to have on his listeners? To feel the exhaustion of being stuck in his head?

(11:23) You feel like the fanfare is almost going to make it … but within seconds (11:36) it’s all collapsed in a heap again.

(11:46) Everything goes woozy – murmuring woodwinds that sound as if they’re losing it.

(12:00) So the struggle starts again in a really heavy cello section. Something is trying to rise up out of the strings, but never quite making it. It’s just all-round depressing. It’s very contrapuntal (lots of that counterpoint I mentioned a minute ago), with lots of moving parts, which give you a feeling of complexity that traps you. Like a maze with the walls moving around you or an endless snowy landscape.

(13:17) Almost gets triumphant again in the brass. But, again, not quite. Dies out in misery and meanders into no man’s land. Never has muted brass sounded so nasty, almost as if it’s throwing the fanfare music back in Mahler’s face.

(14:39) Another woozy rise in the strings, similar to the end of the second wave. Listen and you’ll hear the Farewell motif come in on the horns towards the end.

Wave 4

(15:33) As you’re probably used to with Mahler by now, there is usually a chamber-music version of his themes somewhere in the middle of a movement, and this is no exception. Light strings, flute, French horns play us the Lullaby.

(16:27) The Heroic music pushes back in with a trumpet solo on top of the stormy waters of the strings.

(17:48) MASSIVE collapse. The Heartbeat motif, huge and domineering on the trombones. The Harp motif, beaten out on the timpanis. The music then turns into a bitter funeral march. (After all, it’s not a Mahler symphony without a funeral march, is it?) Listen to the awesome sound of the tubular bells at (19:04).

Wave 5

(19:32) Back to the Farewell Lullaby music.

(20:44) The theme builds up and becomes more romantic and lush.

(21:19) But still collapses into the Aggravated sound world for a few seconds, before dropping into a chamber music no man’s land of flutes and distant French horns. It’s a strange little moment that almost doesn’t fit, but there are so many changes of mood in this movement, we’ve come to expect almost anything.

(22:33) The full strings come back and lead up to another big climax, complete with ringing bells. Is the heroic sound finally going to win?

(23:24) But no, everything just sort of fades as if it’s going into nothing …

Coda

(23:41) … but then, miraculously, we move into a beautiful coda. It’s bizarre, because normally you would expect Mahler to have a massive climax, but there was no build-up to this. And I think that’s the point. For Mahler, to struggle and try to overcome, leads to nothing. (Which is why the music has kept collapsing until now.) But when he finally gives up and accepts the situation (that he is going to die), then and only then is he able to find peace.

(25:17) The Viennese waltz returns, this time in a version that is genuinely peaceful, with solo violin and distant French horns. This might sound like it’s all a bit Johann Strauss, but it is a really beautiful orchestral moment. The farewell two-note motif repeats over and over again, until finally it hangs on the first syllable … suspended in space, followed by a single note on the flute.

We’ve achieved a sense of peace – but can it last?

Apologies if that movement was a bit of a long, hard struggle – but then, if you’ve ever been in a place of grief and anger and had trouble moving beyond it, this does rather sound like what that feels like, doesn’t it?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No 9

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If you’re still following along, we are down to the final three Mahler symphonies and because I’ve been tackling them out of order, you’ll know these are my favourites. While I like various bits and pieces of the other symphonies we’ve heard, these three are absolutely some of the greatest orchestral pieces of music ever written and an amazing experience. (Especially if you can hear them live!)

So we turn now to Mahler’s haunting Symphony No 9, the last complete symphony that he ever wrote. If you remember, the Mahler 10 was completed melodically – as in, he wrote down the main tunes – but was never fully orchestrated. The Mahler 9, however, was fully written and scored for orchestra but he died before he could hear it performed. Despite that, it works amazingly well. I’m always staggered that composers could just be so intimately familiar with the sound of different instruments that they could write it down, hearing in their head what it would sound like, and then – lo and behold – it all turns out to work in real life.

In terms of its sound and theme, if you’ve been listening to the other symphonies on this tour, it fits in very well with Symphony No. 10 and Das Lied von der Erde because it is about the same thing – dealing with death, saying farewell to life, etc. But, for my money, the Mahler 9 easily outstrips the other two in terms of raw emotional power. It feels like this is Mahler, knowing he is going to die, looking death in the face and expressing all the emotions that go with it. It feels, in short, like a last symphony. (And given that Dvořák, Bruckner, Schubert and Beethoven all hit nine symphonies and then died, 9th symphonies always seem to have a special flavour to them.)

It consists of four movements, but unlike regular symphonies, the first and fourth movements are slow movements (and massive slow movements at that) and the two middle movements are the fast ones. So there’s nothing really resembling the epic fast opening or closing movement that you would get in a Brahms or Beethoven symphony. So why this unusual structure? Well, it really gives him a chance to express philosophical ideas without using words.

Movement I starts out as a gentle farewell to life and turns into a massive life-and-death struggle against mortality. Movement II is an increasingly crazy dance. Movement III is a harsh, chaotic scherzo. Both of these seem to be looking at life and seeing chaos and meaninglessness. And then, finally, Movement IV – one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written – expresses a calm and resignation in the face of death and contains one of the most astonishing musical representations of dying ever composed.

For the recording, I’m showcasing a beautiful performance done by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who I am privileged to currently work for), conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. I hope you enjoy it. See you soon for Movement I!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 8: Part 2

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Goethe’s Faust, which provided the text for Part 2 of the Mahler 8.

Again, apologies for the long break between posts. I decided to try training to run for our most famous fun-run in Sydney, the City2Surf, and it took a lot more spare time than I thought. So it has been difficult to find writing time the last few months, thus leaving this awkward gap between movements of this Mahler symphony.

But the great thing is, Part 2 of the Mahler 8 always sounds awesome, no matter how long it’s been since you listened to the first part, so let’s dive back in.

Where We’ve Been:  In Part 1, Mahler took the old Latin hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus and transformed it into a massively large and massively loud piece of choral music for choir and orchestra.

Now, using the same forces, he jumps several centuries ahead, to the famous tragic play, Faust, by probably Germany’s most famous writer of all time, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Faust tells the story of Dr Faust, who makes a bargain with the devil. Goethe wrote the play in two parts and the text here comes from the very end of Faust, Part Two. In this scene (which I’ll warn you, is rather dense and complex in terms of the metaphysical ideas it’s trying to deal with), Faust – obviously having gotten out of his deal with the devil – is transformed and drawn up to Heaven.

Where it ties in with the first one is that Mahler is interested in the idea of the transformation of the soul. So many of the same melodies that were used to sing about the Holy Spirit’s transformation will appear again in this part.

The structure on this part is long but pretty straight-forward. Matching the words (and I would recommend following along with the words while you listen, which you can find over at lieder.net), the music is a step-by-step ascension, moving from the anchorites (a bit like monks or druids) up to the Virgin Mary herself as Faust is drawn towards the divine. So musically this transforms into a grand sweep from a quiet, mysterious orchestral opening all the way up to one of the biggest noises in classical music history.

I’ll be honest, there are a few moments in the middle where I sometimes wish he’d hurry up, but if the destination is worth the journey, then I hope you can be patient. (And it’s hard to skip anything because the music is all continuous.)

CD 2

(Track 1) A mysterious, Haunting Theme. After the huge noise and clamour of Part 1, this is a great break. This Part is essentially a long sweep upwards from the earth to heaven, and so this quiet music at the beginning is the most earth-bound of the music we hear, and serves as an introduction to the holy hermits who are to come. It’s all pizzicato (plucked strings), tremolos (the atmospheric trembling sound the violins make) and woodwind solos, with a distinctive three-note motif (i.e. musical idea) at the beginning, followed by a climb, that repeats all the way through.

(5:12) Reaches a great little climax, before turning back into the tip-toeing quiet version again.

(Track 2) Passionate string moment. But this turns into a more intense version of the slow prelude.

(2:31) Just for a break, out of nowhere, the flutes play a gentle little chorale. This will come back sung by the young angels further along in the piece, so it’s a little bit of Mahler foreshadowing.

(Track 3) Back to the Haunting Theme.

(0:24) Entrance of the hushed choir. These are the anchorites, the holy hermits, singing about how nature (the rocks, forests, even tame lions!) are honouring “the sacred place, Refuge of Grace and Love”. It’s a great moment where you know Mahler has huge musical forces, but chooses to only use them sparingly. (Perhaps like a tame lion padding silently around us?) Amazing highlight moment for the woodwinds, which play two long drawn-out notes. The choir’s melody is simply a choral version of everything we’ve heard so far.

(Track 4) Next is the Pater Ecstaticus, sung by the baritone. According to the notes, the Ecstatic Father is having an out-of-body experience of love (unlike the anchorites), so his music soars up and down. He sings of

“The splendor of the most enduring
Essence of Eternal Love.”

(Track 5) An angular-sounding aria (solo) from the bass as the Pater Profundis. In this particular case (and it may just be the translation that makes it more awkward), love is a difficult spiky thing that roars around like a torrent and causes the Pater Profundis to have “bewildered thoughts”. It’s all over the shop tonally, but occasionally gets back to a snatch of melody that is familiar to us, as if he is grasping an occasional bit of peace in the midst of chaos.

(4:21) Another orchestral interlude. In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, this is the big Love theme that the symphony is going to finish with.

(Track 6) Then into some cute angelic children’s choir music. (These are the angels and the “blessed boys”, hovering ever higher with Faust’s soul). You’ll notice hints of Part 1 in this bit as well (assuming you can still remember it).

(Track 7) More angels – the “Younger Angels” this time. They also sing of how they have rescued Faust’s soul from Satan and the evil ones, who retreated in the face of Love. Delicate with an enthusiastic flute accompaniment burbling underneath.

(Track 8) Things take a darker turn in this track, with a weird violin solo filling in the gaps as the More Perfect Angels sing of “an Earth’s residue that are difficult to bear”. Perhaps these are parts of Faust’s earthly nature that are difficult to shake off? (I might need some help from a German-speaker on this one!) But what does become clear is that once the alto comes in (1:21), things became beautiful and the tension disappears from the music.

(Track 9) Now we have a bit of a trio with The Younger Angels, more Blessed Boys and a character called Doctor Marianus. All of them are shaking off the last parts of earthliness from Faust’s soul and getting excited. This reminds me a lot, in tone, of the Mahler 4 – that childlike view of heaven that Mahler liked, where everything sounds almost like a game in the school playground. (A very innocent heavenly playground, of course, in case that gives the wrong connotations.)

Hang in there if all these angels are starting to get tedious – some people love this stretch, others struggle a bit. But things will pick up.

(Track 10) The enthusiastic Doctor Marianus and his choir, who usher in the Virgin Mary. (The Marianus means that he is a doctor, or teacher, of Mary.) But we have to wait a bit longer before we get to hear from Mary (the Mater Gloriosa) herself.

(Track 11) This is the moment when the Mater Gloriosa (the Virgin Mary) soars into view, which is why we are treated to a beautiful orchestral interlude on harp and strings, before the choir (and later a female soloist) enter quietly and beautifully, asking Mary to listen to their pleading.

(Track 12) The next three women are penitent women (women who have committed great sins and have repented and been forgiven). They give hope to Faust that he will be forgiven as he ascends higher. You might recognise a lot of the themes. First up is the Magna Peccatrix (or Mary Magdalene) making reference to the washing of Jesus’ feet with perfume.

(Track 13) Then we have the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well. Her solo is much more solemn but ends with an outpouring of orchestral joy.

(Track 14) Last up of the three is Maria Aegyptica, or Mary of Egypt, the patron saint of penitents.

(1:22) Then all three of them join in a trio offering hope that if they can be saved, so can Faust. The orchestration is very light (this is the chamber music part of the symphony).

(Track 15) In this track, Gretchen herself (or the Penitent One) calls for Mary to approach. Oddly enough, it starts a bit playful (mandolins?).

(Track 16) The Blessed Boys again, encouraging Faust to leave behind this life and become heavenly. (You may have noticed, BTW, that Faust himself never sings in this section. He is the centre of the transformation that is happening, but it is the other characters that sing about it.) And we are almost at the point of transformation. Gretchen sings (2:05):

See, how he is set free
From the old enfolding of earthly bonds.
Out of ethereal garments
The early force of youth appears!

But all her music in this section is taken from the tunes that we know from Part 1, where we heard about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It is perhaps a loose connection between the two pieces – but it was enough for Mahler and he cements the connection with his music.

(3:12) And then the music slows down and becomes beautiful at the moment when Mary floats into view.

Track 17

To sing two lines. (Yes, all that for two lines!)

Come! Elevate yourself to higher spheres!
If he perceives you, he shall follow you.

The one time I saw this live, they put the soprano up in the organ loft to set her apart from everyone else and in every recording, there is always something other-wordly about this moment.

(1:27) Now this is where things get really good. Doctor Marianus comes back again with his awesome tenor solo that leads into the finale. He calls “all you, frail penitents” to “look up to the redeeming sight that gratefully recreates you to a blessed fate!”For my money, the best bit in the whole symphony is the massive vocal leap that he makes on “bleibe gnädig (keep being merciful)”. (2:59) His voice soars into the sky, and calls down the whole choir who reiterate his words to “look up”.

(6:05) Long orchestral interlude, which will make you think of vast night skies filled with stars and then …

(Track 18) … whisper quiet, the choir comes in one last time with this verse.

All things transitory
Are only symbols;
What is insufficient,
Here becomes an event;
The indescribable
Here is accomplished;
The eternal feminine
Pulls us upwards.

That last part about the “eternal feminine” is an interesting philosophical concept in its own right which was popular in Goethe’s day (you can read about it on Wikipedia) but also got a bit of coin in our own day thanks to The Da Vinci Code, which made it part of its conspiracy theory.

But you’ll more likely be captured by the music, which is a huge, majestic climb to the finish. It’s vast, it’s over-the-top, it’s like floating in space. It’s the Mahler 8. It always brings the house down in the end.

 

 

A Guy Named George – Part 3: The Engineer Who Stole Classical Music Back From the Boring People?

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A series of blog posts about George Grove – in my opinion, the greatest classical music entrepreneur and audience growth expert in the English-speaking world. If you’re just joining us:

A Guy Named George – Part 1

A Guy Named George – Part 2

One of the great things about reading history is that, if a historian is a particularly good writer, a window can open on the past, and the people and situations start to rise off the page and you can picture them and understand them. But then there are other times, where the writer just doesn’t tell you what you’re burning to know. Or he or she might write about something that’s exciting to you in such a dry style that you just can’t grasp the excitement.

This is what I felt when I was reading the only biography of George Grove that I could get my hands on – George Grove by Percy Young.

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Percy Young’s rather dry take on a most un-dry person …

While the book was certainly comprehensive in giving me an overview of George’s life (I slogged through it a few years ago), it never seemed to capture the feeling of Grove himself. From all accounts I’ve read of the man, he was simultaneously one of the most hard-working but also personable people that you could meet. And it’s that open generosity and enthusiasm that comes through in Grove’s writing, but not so much in Young’s prose.

In other words, I believe it was George’s love of music combined with his love of people that made him so determined to connect one with the other. This is what marked him out (and still marks him out, in many ways) from the other musicians and musicologists of his day. Other people were just in it for the music. But George wanted to get it to the people.

Don’t get me wrong –  Young talks about all this stuff in his book, but more with the understatement of an academic, rather than an enthusiastic story-teller.

But I started skimming over the book again on my way to London in April, so that I could come across at least somewhat knowledgeable about Grove and his activities when I visited the Royal College of Music. I did find lots of useful information on why Grove explained music the way he did, and how his background shaped his approach to music. But one thing eluded me and wasn’t really covered in the book: namely, the competitive landscape of the classical music industry in that day.

The Crystal Palace

It’s well documented that in the 1850s, the Crystal Palace opened and that by 1855, George Grove (who was on the committee that put on events in the Palace) had organised having an orchestra. Which then proceeded to play there every Saturday for seven months of the year for the next 50 years.

But what I wasn’t sure about was this: was this just one of many orchestras? (After all, we know that London has many orchestras nowadays, London Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the BBC Symphony, etc.) Was the Crystal Palace all that special? Was classical music popular in general and Grove was just famous for his dictionary and program notes?

In the end, to get a better feel for the landscape, I started to make a timeline, trying to work out where all the other orchestras fit into the Grove landscape. What I discovered was jaw-dropping.

All the major orchestras that we think of today when we think of London orchestras -almost none of them were there in Grove’s day. London Symphony, BBC Symphony, London Philharmonic – none of them were in existence. They all cropped up in the first 50 years of the 20th century.

So who was doing classical music in the 1800s? Well, not many people, actually. When Grove was a boy (he was born in 1820, son of a butcher, so he wasn’t from the upper class), it appears that the main place people went for live music was to concerts put on by a few choral societies that got together to perform choral music (with an awful lot of Handel’s Messiah, which seemed to have hit the sweet spot of being very musical and very religious, thus ensuring its success).

The Royal Philharmonic Society

But with regards to orchestra music, there doesn’t appear to have been very much. The most famous organisation that was doing anything along these lines was The Royal Philharmonic Society (which, incredibly, is still in existence). The RPS was set up by a bunch of professional musicians, most of whom had trained in Europe and its aim was to perform serious classical music. The RPS website puts it like this:

The aims of the fledgling Philharmonic Society were ‘to promote the performance, in the most perfect manner possible, of the best and most approved instrumental music’ and to ‘encourage an appreciation by the public in the art of music’. This was at a time when most concerts consisted of a hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces. The Philharmonic Society was determined to make a case for serious symphonic and chamber music, ‘that species of music which called forth the efforts and displayed the genius of the greatest masters.’ And these ‘masters’ were the living European composers of the time, BeethovenCherubini and Carl Maria von Weber.

I would need to do some more research on this (if I ever get a chance to go back to London, one thing I’m going to do is try to chase up some of the concert listings for the RPS and find out what their concerts were like). But what it sounds like, quite simply, is that it was music for serious classical music nerds. They were expensive, they were bringing out the biggest name composers and unlike these other concerts which were a “hotch potch of vocal tit-bits and virtuoso show pieces”, they were quite clearly designed to be serious.

One other quote from the RPS website bears quoting:

It represented a new spirit of egalitarianism, attracting an audience unified in ‘one great object: the love of their art.’ It was noted by the press that this commitment made them an impressive audience: ‘silence and attention are preserved during the whole performance’, an uncommon phenomenon at the time.

In short, if this report is to be believed, the RPS concerts were the forefather of our modern concert experience. The audience comes in, sits down in mostly perfect silence and attention, and listens to a concert experience that is deliberately devoid of any kind of crowd-pleasing tricks like “vocal tit-bits” and “virtuoso show pieces”. Well-behaved, familiar with the expectations of the concert environment. But the shows were expensive.

So in 1852, a new group popped up called the New Philharmonic Society – which are so obscure nowadays they don’t even have a Wikipedia page – who started doing cheaper concerts, bigger showpieces and – almost to be a bit spiteful – they brought out Berlioz as their chief conductor for their first season. This, too, is a common thing in the world of classical music. Your orchestra is going great guns until someone brings out a bigger, flashier version (or, in the case of Australia, till an expensive visiting orchestra from Europe arrives) with a bigger-name conductor.

A Spectacular Location For Concerts

All this is very similar to the industry today. And then, in 1855, George Grove arrives on the classical music scene. If you remember, the man had been an engineer up to this point, building lighthouses and bridges, etc. But he also seemed to have been a good networker. While working on the construction of a bridge in England, he’d met some men who were helping organise events to take place in one of the newest and most spectacular buildings in London – the Crystal Palace.

kristallpalast_sydenham_1851_aussen
The Crystal Palace -home of a classical music revolution.

So Grove became secretary of the Crystal Palace Committee and, before too long, he was suggesting that the brass band that used to be the musical highlight of visiting the Crystal Palace should be expanded out and turned into a full orchestra. By 1855, the Crystal Palace had its own orchestra which you could hear live in rehearsal during the week and which would perform a concert every Saturday for about seven months of the year.

 

What The-?

At first glance, none of this sounds terribly unusual. You don’t have to go too far in many cities before you find a few amateur orchestras that get together to play music for people in the suburbs – at a cheaper ticket price. Was this what Grove was doing? Just giving people a cheaper ticket than you would get with the battling Philharmonic Societies back in the main part of London?

I’m not so sure. After reading Young’s book more closely, several peculiar features about the Crystal Palace concerts started to jump out.

A Working Class Audience. We know the concerts were aimed at amateurs. But Percy Young’s book says:

Thoughout its life … the Crystal Palace performed a singular service for music, and it is unlikely that any building ever did more to accustom working people to the enjoyment of music. (p. 59, emphasis mine)

Working people? When was the last time we saw working class people at a classical music concert?

An Unsophisticated Working-Class Audience. And by all accounts, the audience was pretty inexperienced in the ways of classical music. Listen to this quote:

An attempt was made politely to discipline the audience towards accepting a new-style concert behaviour. The programame contained this note: ‘Visitors are requested to keep their seats during the Performance of the Music. An interval will be allowed between the Pieces, and between the Movements of the Symphony, which can be taken advantage of by those who wish to move.’ (pp. 66-67)

I can tell you now, if you had people like that in our current concert setting, walking around and chatting during the music, the current audience would be up in freaking arms about it. We harrumph somebody just for clapping in the wrong spot – but his audience was moving around between every movement? And how different does this sound from the rapt attention and silence of the RPS audiences?

One Conductor. For the modern orchestra today, standard practice is to have a different conductor come along for every concert program. There will usually be a chief conductor, who sets the tone for the orchestra and conduct more concerts throughout the year than any other conductor, but for the most part, it’s a different guy (and it’s nearly always a guy) every week. But Grove only had one conductor at the Crystal Place, a fellow called August Manns. While the Royal Philharmonic Society made a huge ballyhoo about its latest guest conductors – “We’ve got Wagner this year!” – for nearly 50 years, the Crystal Palace got by with just the one guy.

And Grove Was More Famous Than Him. An unusual story appears about 15 years into Grove’s career at the Crystal Palace. He writes a letter to a friend in which he talks about the Crystal Palace conductor August Manns. Apparently, Manns was a bit upset. In Grove’s words: “Manns is in a terrrible state of grief owing to various remarks in the Papers recently which seem to give me more credit than is due – or rather to give him less – in reference to the Saturday concerts”. (Young p.128). Grove then goes on to ask if his friend Bennett, who was a music critic of the time, could write some nice stuff about Manns in his next notice for the newspapers.

But let’s stop and think about this for a moment. In what symphony orchestra anywhere in the world would the manager of the organsation, much less the person who writes the program notes, be considered more important than the conductor? What’s going on here?

There is ome indication that Manns may have been a bit second-rate. There’s a story told about the famous Wagnerian conductor Hans von Bülow who, “on hearing what Manns was doing to the Coriolan Overture threw the score he was following to the ground and shouted, ‘What can you expect from a bandmaster?'” (Young p. 104) But still, take a look at the typical cover of an orchestra marketing brochure and there’s a strong chance the front cover will be a photograph of the conductor. So for Grove to be seen as important to the success of the thing is almost unique in the history of classical music.

To Compete With The Crystal Palace …

But the story that almost made me fall off my chair was when I decided to research on Wikipedia where Grove fit into the eco-system of the other orchestras. As far as I could tell, in those days, the lay of the land was that you had your two Philharmonia Societies, both of them stocked up with the best musicians, the best international conductors of their day coming over from Europe and leading the charge – guys like Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Wagner. And then you’ve got Grove, with his bandmaster conductor, and his second-rate orchestra, playing concerts for – let’s be honest – 19th century cultural Philistines in a rather fancy exhibition building that’s outside the CBD.

Given that situation, you would expect therefore, that Grove and the Crystal Palace concerts would be a bit of a struggling organisation. Somewhat like an amateur musical society nowadays – they might be able to put on some of the same shows with tackier sets and costumes, but if you want to see Wicked or Phantom of the Opera performed with a great cast and amazing set designs, you go to Broadway or the West End.

But then, almost casually, on the Wikipedia page for the Royal Philharmonic Society, it is mentioned that the RPS decided, in 1869 – so after the Crystal Palace had been going for nealry 15 years – to move from the 800-seat Hanover Square Rooms to St  James’ Hall, which was larger. And then “the Society remodelled its charges to obtain a wider audience and compete with the Crystal Palace and other large venues, and introduced annotated programmes”.

So larger venues, cheaper prices, and annotated programmes – to compete with the Crystal Palace.

The Most Awesome Classical Music Story I’ve Ever Heard

Maddeningly, there is no mention of this incident in Percy Young’s book, which I find frustrating. In fact, there is almost – in a rather mystifying way – not a lot of mention of the Royal Philharmonic Society and its competition with the Crystal Palace, full stop. This means that what I’m about to say is somewhat speculative, and perhaps someone can research it more fully. But this is what it looks like:

Before Grove, classical music in London was, quite simply, only for a handful of elite people. If you were a musician, or you moved in those circles, you had the money to afford it and you knew a bit about European music, you might have come along to the Royal Philharmonic Society concerts. The fact that there were no annotated programmes for the first 50 years of its existence means that the RPS were pretty much assuming that you knew your music theory before you walked in the door, and thus were au fait with what went on at a classical music concert. (And probably dropped turns of phrase like “au fait“, for that matter.)

Then Grove comes along. He’s a civil engineer. He’s not a musician. He’s not a conductor. He’s not from that set at all. He’s an engineer from a working class background who, through sheer force of his personality and connections, gets the chance to start running his own concert series at the Crystal Palace. His audience consists of ordinary people who are completely unfamiliar with the music (after all, there were no recordings) or even just general concert etiquette.

And yet, within 15 years, the big high-brow organisations back in the main part of town are copying him. An engineer layperson has run rings around organisations that featured the most famous composers of the 19th century. That’s freaking impressive and almost unimaginable in today’s day and age. If that’s what actually happened, it is, without doubt, the most awesome story about the classical music industry I’ve ever heard.

If I understand correctly the number of concerts that the RPS performed was about a modest eight concerts a year. Whereas Grove performed every Saturday for about seven months of the year. So assume around 28 concerts a year – almost triple the performances of the RPS.

I can’t state this strongly enough, but nearly every major orchestra playing today is competing on the grounds of who can attract the best conductors and soloists to come and perform, because it is assumed (even if it’s an unspoken assumption) that this is the way to boost attendance at orchestras. But if I’ve understood the story of Grove correctly, his calibre of conductor and soloists was a lot lower than that of his competitors. And yet Grove was the one that grew the audience. What does that say about the way we’re approaching things today?

And all this was just what I could glean from looking through the one biography of Grove and having a poke around the internet. But what I couldn’t tell – and it was going to take a trip to the Royal College of Music to shed more light on it – was what actually went on at these Crystal Palace concerts? Were they just like our classical concerts, but cheaper and in a cool venue? Were Grove’s programme notes as enthusiastic in tone as his Beethoven book?

Well, my trip to the RCM did shed light on that particular subject – and totally blew my mind – but now that I’m at the 3,000 word mark, I’ll leave that for another blog post. (And for those waiting for Part 2 of the Mahler 8, that will be coming next!)