Review: Giant’s Bread

Giant's Bread
Giant’s Bread by Mary Westmacott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Those of you who are up on your Agatha Christie lore will know that she wrote six books under the assumed name of Mary Westmacott. This was her way of writing something outside her regular genre of detective / mystery without feeling the pressure from the general public.

She got away with it for 15 years apparently before it was revealed that Mary Westmacott was Agatha Christie. Since I’ve nearly finished the complete canon of the Queen of Crime, just for completeness’ sake, I decided to have a crack at the Westmacott novels.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. One of the problems I struggle with the most with Christie is that while her plots are diabolically clever, with red herrings galore and zillions of plot twists, I always find her upper-crust toffee-nosed Englishfolk far too two-dimensional for my liking. But I will confess, this story sucked me in, perhaps because of its connection with music.

It begins with a concert in London for a new avant-garde composer which reminded me a little bit of Stravinsky’s famous Rite of Spring premiere. There is no riot from the crowd, but the piece is thoroughly modern, incomprehensible and is saying something about the human condition that no one understands. The rest of the story is then a huge flash back following the life of Vernon Deyre, the composer, his childhood friends and what becomes of them.

It’s all very melodramatic (and somewhat racier than I would have expected from Christie) with love triangles, marriages for money, a reported World War I death and the pursuit of new sound worlds in music. It was written in 1930, and some of the themes (particularly the WWI setting and the rampant anti-Semitism of the times) have probably taken on more significance since the story was written.

I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece (it’s not really) and I’m not even able to get an objective bearing to say whether any non-Christie fans would enjoy this (probably not, and probably not even Christie fans). But I enjoyed it, and it kept me reading and I’ll be curious to read the other Westmacott novels.

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The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 8: Part 1

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There’s nothing quite like seeing 1,000+ musicians about to make an epic noise. This is a photo from a performance of the Mahler 8 in Slovenia in 2001 with 1,083 performers. (Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.)

The best way to listen to this whole symphony is to simply follow along with the words. Mahler thought they were important enough to have nearly the entire symphony sung, and so looking at the words will immediately put you on the wavelength of what the symphony is about. So for this blog post, I’ve mainly just listed the words, but I’ll throw in a few comments from time to time. (My translation is courtesy of Wikipedia, BTW.)

It essentially plays with two types of music – a vast, epic choral sound that you hear right at the beginning with the full choir, and some more gentle music that you will usually hear from just the soloists (of which there are eight!). So it simultaneously hits listeners with the full power of God, while bestowing grace and beauty on them as well.

Also, if you’ve been following along with the blog, you might recognise that the whole thing, as well as being spiritual, is also a type of sonata form, where he sets out his main themes, plays around with them in various ways in the middle and then brings everything full circle at the end with a recapitulation.

You will have to forgive the fact that it’s broken up into lots of separate tracks as well. It makes it easier to skip to your favourite bits second time around, but it does take up a lot of room on this post!

(Track 1) The organ chord that everyone loves, and then straight into the big Veni creator theme which opens and closes the whole symphony. I find with a choir this size (and technically the choir here is actually split into two choirs – singing back and forth at each other), most of the words seem to disappear, but you can hear the big soul-transforming sound easily enough. The music perfectly matches the idea of the Holy Ghost with his “bright heav’nly throne”.

Veni, creator spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita;

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;

(Track 2) Soloists – then choir – then soloists again; beautiful peaceful second theme. The first go round is with the soloists, then with the choir joining in quietly. Bit by bit, the singers work their way higher and higher up, so that the solo part climaxes on the words “spiritual anointment”.

imple superna gratia,
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paraclitus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,

fons vivus, ignis, caritas,
et spiritalis unctio.

come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.

You are named the Comforter,
A gift from the highest God,

Living fountain, fire and love,
Spiritual anointment.

(3:28) Returns to the Veni creator theme of the opening.

(4:03) Awesome orchestral interlude begins …

(Track 3) The interlude continues, now with bells and strings. The choir re-enters at (0:38) with the Infirma nostri section. Because this is about feeble bodies being strengthened, Mahler has the choir almost whispering at this point, with a solo violin flitting around, somewhat like an annoying mosquito. (That may be just my opinion, however. The word Mahler uses is “fleeting”.)

The soloists re-enter on the bit about “with divine power” and offer a bit of comfort.

Infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti;

Therefore, strengthen our feeble bodies
With divine power!

(Track 4) Another orchestral interlude begins. This one has hints of the first three notes, tolling bells, and off-stage brass.

(Track 5) I like to think that this brilliant little bit of flute music inspired the soundtrack for every creepy moment in children’s films from then on. It leads into more Infirma nostri from the soloists.

(1:15) The enlightenment arrives, and it’s as delicate and beautiful as can be.

lumen accende sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus.

Enlighten our senses,
Infuse your love into our hearts!

(Track 6) Accende lumen sensibus (the words slightly switched around) – the LOUD version. Soloists and choir take off.

(1:16) Next is the hostem repellas moment, which is great fun because the choir actually shouts its lines, just to really emphasise that they’re driving away an enemy here. And I should just repeat that when I say “choir”, there are actually two large choirs plus a children’s choir singing here, so there are approximately nine choral vocal parts plus eight soloists all going at once. It’s huge.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus;

Drive away the enemy
And give us everlasting peace!

(1:51) Then with almost no warning, Mahler heads into the next section.

ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne pessimum.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae paternae digitus;
Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus Filium, spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Da gaudiorum praemia,
da gratiarum munera;
dissolve litis vincula,
adstringe pacis foedera.

Guide us on our pathway,
So that we may shun all perils!

You, sevenfold tribute of the Father.
The finger in his hand,
Reveal to us the Father and the Son!
Let us have faith in you forever,
The Spirit that from both of you emanates!

Grant us the joys of heaven,
Bestow on us your offering of Grace!
Settle matters where conflict prevails,
And bring peace there!

This is a massive exercise in counterpoint (meaning all the voices have their own separate melody lines, but they all layer on top of each other perfectly), so the music sounds infinitely complex, but not at all like a cacophony. It goes on in this vein for several minutes, becoming more and more joyfully ecstatic.

(3:30) Accende Lumen comes back in full glory. Any other piece of music and you’d think this was the ending, but this is a fake ending. Instead, it starts working back up towards the real recapitulation.

(4:14) But not without stopping for the choral equivalent of a Mahler collapse along the way. The music sounds as if it’s falling apart, but slowly you can hear it stirring and you can feel things building …

(Track 7) This is essentially the start of the Recapitulation section. Back to Veni creator. Tennstedt slows it down for dramatic effect. Most of this is music from the beginning of the movement, but as always with Mahler, re-orchestrated and subtly adjusted. I must confess, there are many moments in this next stretch where you think the whole thing is about to finish and then it just keeps going … it will either start to wear out its welcome, or – especially if you crank it loud on a good set of speakers – the hugeness of it all will be amazingly overwhelming.

(Track 8) And just when you thought it was all over, there’s more! It’s a coda! A little orchestral interlude leads up to a children’s choir and the soloists singing:

Gloria Patri Domino,
Deo sit gloria et Filio
natoque, qui a mortuis
surrexit, ac Paraclito
in saeculorum saecula.

Let God the Father be praised
And his resurrected Son
And the comforting Spirit
In all eternity!

At first the melody is the Infirma theme, then it’s the Veni creator theme. Soon the organ kicks in, the choirs join in, the whole kitchen sink, climaxing with a massive series of upwards runs (2:19) at the end. Played loud or heard live, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring.

Apologies for the Quiet Blog

I’m not sure that everyone is urgently checking this blog every day for the latest Mahler movement or George Grove post, but just in case you were – apologies that it has been a bit quiet. A slightly busier trip to London and a bereavement in the family meant that I haven’t been able to jump on here until now.

So rest assured, I’ll be finishing off the final Mahler symphonies soon, and for those who were curious about George Grove and his exploits, the information I uncovered in London was absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to share it.

Back soon!

Review: Les Misérables

Les Misérables
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read somewhere online last year that Les Misérables had 365 short chapters, so I decided at the beginning of April 2015 that I would read Hugo’s famous book at the rate of one chapter a day for the next year (though I did speed up a little bit in the last few days, thus why I’m finishing in just under a year).

I know not everybody would drag the reading of this book out that long but I found it a good experience several years back with War and Peace, which I blogged at the rate of a chapter a day for a year.

While reading a novel slowly drags it out, I find it lets you luxuriate in the detail of the writer’s prose. Otherwise, you’re in such a rush to get through to the story’s end that you can find you missed all sorts of jewels along the way.

And if that is the case like that with an author like Tolstoy, it’s even more the case with Victor Hugo. Like many Westerners, I first encountered the story of Les Misérables through the famous musical, which I had always found immensely moving. But I had always assumed, given the size of the Hugo book, that there must have been reams and reams of back story and peripheral characters that were cut.

And, look, there certainly are extended scenes and characters and background details in the novel. But, in many ways the musical has done a pretty good job of keeping the spine of the story. But what fills this book out, more than any peripheral characters (which is the thing that makes War and Peace so massive) is simply Hugo’s long side-tangents on all sorts of topics of interest to him that might only slightly touch upon the plot. For instance, he spends around 20 chapters (and remember, that’s nearly a month when you’re reading one chapter a day!) discussing the battle of Waterloo. From a story perspective, the only reason he’s even talking about Waterloo is because there is a minor subplot with Marius’ dad and Thenardier that features in the story. (And this is one of the subplots that got cut from the musical.) The scene with Marius’ father takes all of two pages to read. From a plot perspective, we really didn’t need a detailed drill-down into every detail of what happened at Waterloo.

So sometimes these side-tangents were really fascinating, but other times I got a bit lost, chiefly because they refer to very particular French characters and historical events, and I simply had no idea what he was talking about – I think I would need an annotated version to get my head around them all.

But that said, by the end I started to understand the tangents. I think it’s because Hugo is trying to touch on two major issues in the book – one of which is a universal theme and the other more particularly French. The universal theme is the idea of replacing hatred and judgmentalism with love and kindness. And that, of course, became the heart of the musical – the journey of Jean Valjean from being an angry convict to being a man with a massive heart and an extraordinary conscience. And that’s the story that grabs the reader. Valjean’s journey and his moral decisions, especially when Hugo is on fire, are majestic, stirring and moving. You read them and they encourage you to be a better person.

But the other theme that he deals with -which has been largely watered down in the musical – is the rift that occurred in French society after the French Revolution. There had been a revolution, the aristocracy had been overthrown, the people had triumphed. But then, when Napoleon turned out to be somewhat of a tyrant and was ultimately defeated, there was now a swing back the other way. So those who had overthrown the Establishment and the re-emerging Establishment are now living side-by-side in the vast sprawling city of Paris and they are still nursing many of their old grudges and hurts. It is this tension that explodes into the barricade sequence towards the end, but I understood it a lot more in light of what the book laid out.

Still, it is that particularly French part of the story that dates it and makes it difficult for non-French readers more than anything else. I’d be interested to know to what degree it becomes a difficult read for French readers nowadays as well as the historical background to the novel moves further and further away from us.

All in all, though, I’m glad I read it. There were passages that had me enthralled, moved me to tears, filled me with anger and spoke directly to my heart. How often do you get that from a book? This is rightly called a classic.

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A Guy Named George – Part 2: The Man Who Changed My Life

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The genial mutton chops of Sir George Grove

In my last blog post on the Book That Changed My Life, I explained how I picked a copy of Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies in a second-hand bookstore. It so fired my enthusiasm for Beethoven symphonies and then classical music in general, that I lay the blame for my subsequent entry into the classical music industry entirely on that book. (Well, that book and the Mahler 2 – which I am very much looking forward to presenting in this blog as part of the Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour.)

But I must confess that it was a while longer down my classical music path before I started to get curious about the guy who wrote that Beethoven book. After all, if this was the book that changed my life, in a way it really means that George Grove himself (despite having long departed this earth) changed my whole life.

But you know what it’s like with old books from the 19th century – they all seem to be written by a bunch of guys with very English-sounding names who all have rather spectacular facial hair that would give a hipster barista a run for his money. So I’ve never paid a lot of attention to old authors, even if I like their books.

But somewhere along the line, I got curious about George Grove – especially as I grew interested in the art form of creating audience engagement with classical music. Clearly, this was a man who had a knack for getting people fired up about Beethoven symphonies. Who was he?

A quick look around Wikipedia told me a little bit, and that little bit was fascinating. Grove was born in 1820 and died in 1900, so he effectively spanned most of the 19th century, just disappearing off the horizon before the onset of the 20th century. Nowadays, outside of classical music circles no one has heard of him – and even then, I’m not sure how well known he is in those circles.

But back in the Victorian era, in the realm of classical music, he was big bikkies. He was involved with regular concerts that occurred in a place called The Crystal Palace (I’ll do another post on those) where he was not only Secretary of the company that ran the concerts, he wrote the program notes week in and week out. (So the Beethoven book was actually just a collection and expansion of his notes on Beethoven symphonies. There are apparently lots more – some of which I’m hoping to get a look at while I’m in London next month.)

As if writing notes and promoting concerts weren’t enough, he also got the Royal College of Music up and running in the late 1800s, which became the major place for young musicians to study their craft. And he established the famous Dictionary of Music of Musicians, which became the most essential dictionary on musical matters.

And apart from the Crystal Palace (which sadly burned to the ground in 1936), all of the musical endeavours that George put his hand to are still with us. The Beethoven and His Nine Symphonies book is still in print, the Royal College of Music is still running (and if their website is to be believed, voted the #1 place to study music in the UK). And if you’ve got a small fortune and spare room on your shelves, you can get yourself the 29-volumes of The New Grove Dictionary of Music. If that’s not a lasting legacy, then I don’t know what is.

But what’s most fascinating to me about Grove is that, when you look more closely, he’s not actually a musician. He wasn’t a famous conductor or composer. He was an engineer. His studies and background prepared him for civil engineering (like this lighthouse he built in Jamaica, which is also still standing today). He was a layperson. And yet somehow this man managed to become the driving force behind British classical music, with a presence that still impacts on us today.

This I find extraordinary and also (as a layperson myself) incredibly inspiring. If the 19th century of classical music is largely dominated by the names of composers, the 20th century – especially once the record player became widely available – has been defined by the names of famous musicians and conductors.  As a result of that, the structure of most arts companies is that the top position, that of Artistic Director – the person who sets the tone for all the activities of the organisation – is nearly always an artist themselves.

I can understand the logic – you need an artist to help you shape the artistic direction of a company, right? But it does often feel that those of us who aren’t artists as such, are second tier. We can help with some of the admin side (after all, there is plenty of work to do selling tickets and raising money) but when it comes to the look and feel of what happens on stage, we still look to that new young hot-property conductor to be the magic bullet.

So from that context, Grove now fascinates me. Because what I can’t help wondering is – did he manage to build up the classical music scene precisely because he was a layman? Was it that feeling of being on the outside of something amazing (even though he was as heavily involved on the admin side as he could be) that helped him know how these things should be run? Did it give him an empathy for the amateur, struggling to come to terms with the genius of Beethoven, Mozart and Co?

I’m not sure, but I’ll see what I can uncover when I’m on my fact-finding trip to London next month. More next time!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Up Next: Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”)

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We have four Mahler symphonies left to go, and hopefully in this homeward stretch, blogging about them out of order will all pay off. Like the long-awaited dessert at the end of a meal, these last four symphonies are all musical gold. They’re huge – both in length, size of the orchestra, massiveness of sound and the philosophical and theological concepts that they touch on. (Don’t worry, if that sounds too scary, you can just dip in and like it as pure music – many people do.)

But when it comes to size of an ensemble, the Mahler 8 – the next symphonic stop in our guided tour of Mahler – is a thing of legend. Mahler had experimented with putting choirs in symphonies (you’ll hear that in the Mahler 2 and the Mahler 3). But for the Mahler 8, he decided that he wanted to try something completely different – a symphony for orchestra, solo singers and choir, and the singers and choir would sing throughout almost the entire work. (This almost makes the piece a cantata, which was the name for – mostly sacred – works for choir and orchestra that were popular in back in the 1700s.)

It was first premiered in Munich. For that performance Mahler assembled a massive orchestra, eight soloists, a large choir and a children’s choir as well. The over-enthusiastic guy who was spruiking the concert (channelling the spirit of classical music marketers all the way into the future) came up with the tagline to end all taglines: “Symphony Of A Thousand”. Mahler never authorised this subtitle and the reality is that you can quite adequately perform the piece with half those numbers, but it was too late – the nickname has stuck ever since and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a recording or a concert advertisement of the Mahler 8 that doesn’t slip it in somewhere. (That said, because it does require such massive forces to perform, it is the rarest Mahler to hear performed live. If you do ever see it advertised by your local orchestra, don’t muck around getting a ticket – hordes of Mahlerites will be scrambling over themselves to snap up the seats.)

So what’s it about and why does it need a choir? Essentially it’s because Mahler came across two ideas that he really liked – one an old Latin hymn tune and the other the end of Goethe’s famous epic poem Faust and he wanted to set these particular pieces to music. Structurally, it is different from any other symphony he composed. Essentially, there are no movements – just two parts.

Part One is in Latin and is an ancient 9th century hymn known as Veni, creator spiritus or “Come, Creator Spirit”. Part Two is the final scene of Faust.

I might just pause here to do a quick potted version of Faust, because while it’s a name that crops up a fair bit in 19th century music, I don’t know of too much popular culture that references it. Faust was the name of a doctor in an old German legend who sold his soul to the devil, in exchange for all the wisdom and experiences that this life could offer. This legend has been the inspiration for plays, operas, songs, etc. but the most famous version of all is the one by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote a play in verse of the Faust legend (known as Faust, Part One) and then later in life came along and wrote a much more metaphysical extension of the Faust story (known as Faust, Part Two).

At the end of Part Two, various angels, holy women and finally the Virgin Mary come down from heaven and transform Faust’s soul in order to draw him to Heaven. I find that every translation of the German I’ve read of this final scene is tortuous to read, so I’m half-suspecting it could be difficult in the original German as well.

The main point you need to know is that that final scene of Faust spoke to Mahler and he was clearly interested in the concept of spiritual transcendence and the transformation of the soul. So when you look at the lyrics to the Latin hymn in the first half, Veni Creator Spiritus, you can see that it’s a prayer asking the Holy Spirit to “take possession of our souls” and contains lines such as: “O guide our minds with thy blest light, with love our hearts inflame.”

So if you think of this as a massive exploration of the theme of human souls being transformed by a Divine power, you’ll be on the wavelength of what this symphony is about. And when you hear the music that Mahler used for this symphony, you’ll understand what an awe-inspiring concept he found that to be.

From a musical perspective, Mahler managed to tie these two parts together (both written centuries apart and in different languages) by having some common musical themes that are shared across both. So whether or not you think he successfully tied the two texts together, you’ll probably agree the musical tunes are united together very well.

As far as recordings go, it was tricky to know which one to choose. All the recordings seem to bring out lots of different details, and some people lean towards the dramatic, some people like to go more calm and spiritual. (I will tell you now, there is nothing quite so convoluted as reading reviews of classical music online. One reviewer will be telling you it’s the definitive recording, sounding absolutely amazing, but the next reviewer will say, no, it’s pretty lackluster, actually. Proving yet again that, even among people who all love the same music, everybody can hear different things.)

The recording conducted by Georg Solti is one that crops up on favourite lists all the time (and I’d recommend tracking it down), but because we used him for the Mahler 6, I’ll run with another conductor who shows up quite regularly on Mahler 8 favourite lists: Klaus Tennstedt, with his live recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I haven’t listened to all of it myself, so it can be something new for both of us.

See you soon for Part One!

 

 

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Mahler 1 Deleted Scene: Blumine

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The Trumpeter of Säckingen, the inspiration for Mahler’s deleted Blumine movement. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

And before we finally finish up with the Mahler 1, let me just throw in one last movement that Mahler originally wrote for the symphony, but later deleted.

This movement was called Blumine. (Which is not actually a real word, by the way  – Blume means flower in German, so it’s presumably something to do with flowering? Any German-speakers are more than welcome to chip in and help me out on this one!) It would have originally slotted in between the first and second movements.

Soundwise, the main tune was one that Mahler had written earlier as some incidental music from a story called The Trumpeter of Säckingen. Which explains why this is essentially an extended serenade for trumpet. It’s very beautiful, but it’s also very treacly and sweet as well, so you can see why Mahler cut it out and left only the edgy stuff in the symphony.

And once he did cut it, it was never heard from 1894 to 1966 when somebody discovered the older original manuscript of the Mahler 1 and found the movement. Respecting Mahler’s wishes -and also because of the above-mentioned treacle effect – nobody puts it in back in the symphony, but every now and again, somebody will play it as a bonus extra at a Mahler performance.

Somewhat like I’m doing now. So have a listen and see what you think. If nothing else, it’s a great piece of trumpet music. (Apologies -there is a lot of applause on this video before the music starts.)