Review: The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did something rather stupid about halfway through the book. Knowing there was a movie of The Light Between Oceans, I had a look at Metascore, just to see what reviewers were making of the movie. And while I didn’t get any direct plot spoilers, I did see a quote from one reviewer that said, and I quote: ‘Just when the audience is gearing up for a powerfully tragic resolution of the kind that Thomas Hardy might have written, the movie veers off into Nicholas Sparks territory instead.’

Which all of a sudden ruined the book for me. Because I now spent the remainder of the story with the growing suspicion that this was going to have a Mushy Ending of some sorts that would take the edge off the story.

The result, of course, without giving away any plot points, is that the ending does land somewhere between the bleakly tragic and the tearfully mushy, but I’m not sure if that is how it is meant to feel or whether I ruined it for myself by checking out the cinema review and thus biased myself towards the ending.

Anyway, to talk about what it is – the story set-up is melodramatic and over-the-top in many respects, but works perfectly because of the attention to detail that Stedman gives us. A lighthouse keeper and his wife live on a remote island where they only see other people every three months. This is in the 1920s, so Tom is still suffering from the trauma of the war and Isabel is struggling with her several miscarriages. (In many ways, both of these tragedies are connected by the idea of the death of children before their time.)

One day, a boat arrives on the shore, bearing a dead man and a living baby. Rather than report the incident, they decide to keep the baby. There are various reasons for why they make this particular choice, all of which we readers can immediately sympathise with but – of course – this decision is to be the turning point that causes all the angst moving forward.

It’s a gripping story, and I got sucked right in, but I will confess I found the first half of the story more compelling. Here we find the back story for Tom and Isabel, the lighthouse couple, and also witness their moral struggle with whether they did the right thing, and the increasing seeds of guilt and untruth that creep in.

The second half of the book is a lot more plot-driven, due to the direction that the story takes. While this certainly goes by quickly, taking the focus off the two main characters like that seemed to lose a bit of the magic somehow.

But, look, these are small quibbles. It’s a great Australian tragedy. If it had been made 70 years ago as a black-and-white movie, it would have been considered one of the great weepies of all time. Bring your tissues if you’re going to read this one.

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Next Blogging Projects: The Future of Classical Music + My Favourite Childhood Author

So just wanted to give all my readers a heads-up that now that I’ve finished blogging through the Mahler Symphonies, I have a couple of new projects on the go which you may be interested in.

However, because they are somewhat niche interests, I’m going to be writing about them in two completely separate blogs, both a little more targeted in who they’re designed to reach. Both of these have just started up and running, so jump over if either of them sound interesting:

1) FutureClassical.com

It’s no secret to those who regularly read my pages here that I’m obsessed with the question of what the future will hold for the classical music world. Now that I’ve been mulling over the problem for a decade or so, ideas and theories are starting to come to me that I wanted to record down in print. (But which will hopefully provoke discussion as well!)

So, to that end, I have enterered the world of those people who set up their own website and you can find me over at:

www.futureclassical.com

For the first few months, I’ll be going through some ideas I have about why people like music and what that might point to in the future of classical music. I’d also like to use it as a site to share news and views about what’s going on around the world in terms of classical music audience-building.

2) The Great Grand Robin Jarvis (Re)Read

But then, on a completely different note, I’m also co-blogging on possibly my most crazily ambitious feat yet – to blog chapter-by-chapter through the works of my favourite childhood author, Robin Jarvis. Unfortunately, Jarvis has been somewhat obscure in Australia (though it’s possible he’s a bit obscure everywhere!), but I’ve always had a soft-spot for his very British tales of small heroes, dark magic, incredible bravery and noble sacrifice.

If that sounds remotely appealing, we’re inviting Robin Jarvis fans and lovers of YA fiction who want to try something new to join in the fun over at:

therobinjarvisportal.wordpress.com

If neither of those sound interesting, I do apologise! I may well do the odd blog post here and there on this blog on topics that don’t fit into either a “future of classical music” or “Robin Jarvis” category, but this blog will probably go somewhat quiet over the next little while. Thanks again for those who joined me in the Mahler tour!

A Guy Named George – Part 5: George Grove and Classical Music Audience-Building

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Photo sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The last in a series of posts about George Grove, the legendary classical music audience builder.

So in my last post about George Grove, I talked about my afternoon in the Royal College of Music and how George Grove’s Crystal Palace concerts turned out to be a canny mixture of education and crowd-pleasing fun (leaning towards the latter).

There is sometimes an (often unspoken) assumption in modern classical music circles that the secret to getting a big audience is to playing the music at a very high standard of excellence.  But after those few hours spent in the Royal College, I’m going to be more emphatic: I don’t think we ever grew audiences that way.

Excellence Organisations vs Audience Organisations

I now have a new theory. I believe there are two types of classical music organisations – those that are focused around Excellence and those that are focused around Audiences. Surely that’s the same thing, you might be thinking? Not necessarily.

Nowadays there are so many recordings floating around of any classical piece. (Who can even count how many complete sets of Beethoven and Mahler symphonies are in existence?) This is because classical music nerds, the connoisseurs, are so intimately familiar with the details of these works that they are always looking out for that interpretation or performance that is just that little bit better than any they have ever heard. They’re looking for the most perfect rendition, the one that gets an A+ while all the others get an A.

And this is what the classical music industry has thrived on for the last century. The existence of the connoisseurs. So a typical modern classical music company is built around the concept of drawing in the best conductors, the best musicians, the best ensembles, because they are performing for the connoisseurs, that audience who is knowledgeable enough to know the difference between the A performance and the A+ performance.

But for the person starting out with a vague interest in classical music – they have no such level of knowledge. This is why there were so many cheap and nasty CD labels selling classical CDs for $5 in bargain bins at supermarkets back in the 80s and 90s. To the average person, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the 1812 Overture is the same, regardless of who plays it.

So Excellence Organisations play to connoisseurs, strive for perfection, and the emphasis is geared towards performing a broad repertoire with prestigious musicians. However, by comparison, George Grove’s Crystal Palace series was an Audience Organisation. Perhaps by necessity of being run for a profit, it needed to be one, rather than any great desire by Grove. But necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And so Grove’s Audience Organisation was built around the audience: It had to be entertaining to reach a broad crowd. It had to include not just serious music, but also music the masses would respond to as well. It attempted to make the audience more sophisticated, definitely, but it always recognised that it had to get them in the door first before any of that could happen.

So what happened? Why did the Crystal Palace concerts die out after Grove died? Why don’t we see concerts like this any more? Why is nearly every classical music organisation today trying to be an Excellence Organisation with virtually no one trying to be an Audience Organisation?

My theory – and I’m now going out on a limb and completely speculating here – is that Grove, quite by accident, had stumbled on the magic formula for growing classical music audiences. If the concerts were just to please the crowds, it would have been like André Rieu – great fun for those who go, but not a bridge to the great classics. If it had been all serious and musicological, it would have been like a modern-day film appreciation class: great for the small number of people who like to educate themselves about culture, but not meaning a lot to the hordes thronging the multiplex. But George did both – he was an entertainer and an enthusiastic teacher and he taught the lay audiences of Britain to love classical music.

Like MasterChef for Classical Music

The closest thing to which I would compare George’s achievement would actually be MasterChef. Everyone who watches the show knows it’s manipulative, cheesy and aiming at the lowest common denominator in terms of entertainment. Its goal is to have you glued to the TV set every night for an hour. And yet, slowly but surely, as this cheesy little reality TV show has infiltrated the hearts and minds of Australia (and I’m sure other countries that have the show), what has happened? It has raised a generation of foodies. And that has a flow-on effect for the restaurant industry, for fine-dining experiences. There are more upmarket food experiences to be had in my city of Sydney than ever before. So a show that is built entirely around pleasing its audience is actually doing a service for food culture in Australia, more so than any fine dining guides or food reviewers were ever able to achieve before.

A Victim of His Own Success?

So why do we not see anything quite like the Crystal Palace series today? My theory is that Grove’s experiment was, in the end, a victim of its own success. By the end of the 19th century, as Grove’s life came to an end (he died in 1900), there were new Audience Organisations having a crack at the lay person. (The most famous of which were the Proms, which are still running to this day.) People were so keen to nerd up on classical music, that Grove was able to successfully put together and publish the Grove Dictionary of Music. (This is still in print but nowadays it’s a large multi-volume work that lurks in Conservatorium libraries. What has possibly been missed today is that the dictionary was intended, not for classical music students, but for the lay person to gain an understanding of classical music.)

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Portrait of George Grove by Charles Furse that hangs in the foyer of the Royal College of Music in London.

Also, rather than head off to Europe to learn to play classical music, there were enough talented young musicians that a good music school was warranted in England. And so the Royal College of Music was established and has continued in operation ever since.

In short, classical music was such an in thing to do in London, that really nobody had to worry about trying to persuade people it was entertaining. The peer pressure did that work. Everyone was reading up on it, studying it, and going to as many concerts as they could. The ecosystem was well and truly set up. So in the early 20th century, you can see the extraordinary explosion of public orchestras setting up in London. The London Symphony, the London Philharmonic, the New Philharmonia, etc. If an orchestra could get its A+ conductors and musicians lined up, there was an audience willing to part with their money to hear them.

In short, classical music was now so much part of the popular culture, that it was carried along by its own momentum.

Hereditary Culture

Also – and this would require a whole separate blog post – culture up until the 1960s was hereditary. You aimed to carry on the traditions and culture of your parents and grandparents, thus why many churches, to this day, sing the same old hymns from the 19th century and why many classical music audiences over the age of 70 can remember going to concerts with their parents and listening to classical music their entire lives. Why would you listen to anything else? It’s the best that culture can offer!

But in today’s day and age, we don’t think like that. At least for the last 40 years, the goal as soon as we hit our teenage years was to discover music that sounded as obnoxiously differently from our parents’ music as humanly possible. But side by side with this generational shift amongst the masses, something else had happened in classical  music circles – we possibly lost sight of how to make people love classical music.

Everybody has been competing in the Excellence space for so long, no one is really sure how to do the Audience-building thing any more. And the reality is, it’s much harder to do now than it ever was. It will look different for every generation, because audiences are always looking for something new and exciting. By the time Grove died, classical music was so popular and the Crystal Palace wasn’t the new and exciting venue that it used to be, that his series of concerts just died out. Unlike the Excellence Organisations, which just need to be excellence, Audience Organisations need to be constantly evolving because the audience is evolving.

To build an audience today for classical music – and it’s something that is desperately needed – will require a whole new set of different tricks. I suspect it might need to involve a larger role for film music, which is the most common orchestral music still listened to by laypeople. But no one is entirely sure.

But more pressing even than the mix of music is this question: where are our George Groves today? Where are people who can speak the ordinary language of laypeople, and yet draw them into a greater knowledge of the classical music art form? Where are people so enthusiastic for classical music, that their enthusiasm infects a whole city? (And in this day and age of the internet, one person’s enthusiasm could spread across the globe.)

I’d like to be optimistic, but as the classical music industry faces an uncertain future, I’m not sure whether we’ll be able to return to the Audience focus fast enough to stem the tide of the ageing audience. But there are glimmers of hope. For instance, this young orchestra, the Melbourne Philharmonia Project, popped up in an article I was reading earlier this year. They talk about wanting to create “an orchestral experience which was aimed at not the 7 per cent that listen to classic music but the other 93 per cent”. Now that right there is the language of an Audience Organisation. I’d like to think that if enough groups like this appear, following in the footsteps of George Grove (even if we unfortunately just think of him as the guy with the multi-volume music dictionary named after him), maybe collectively we all might be able to make a difference.

After all, if George Grove could change my life and open up the world of classical music to me, why couldn’t the same happen to plenty of other people out there if we gave it a try?

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement V

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Movement V: What The Angels Tell Me

Where We’ve Been:

  • Movement I: What the Rocks and Mountains Tell Me (aka Summer Marches In)
  • Movement II: What the Flowers Tell Me
  • Movement III: What the Animals Tell Me
  • Movement IV: What Man Tells Me

And now we’re up to the second-last level of Mahler’s chain of creation – the angels. This is really simple. It’s another one of the songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Wonderhorn), that slightly bizarre set of folk poems that Mahler loved so much. It describes the joy of three angels in heaven.

The poem is arranged for (as in, written out to be performed by) a cute children’s choir (making “Bimm-Bamm” bell sounds), a female choir and the alto soloist again. And after assembling that many people, how long do they sing for? Yes, that’s right. Four minutes. Only in Mahler would you go to that much bother for something so short. But, it all adds to the magical levels of contrast we get to enjoy in this symphony.

(CD 2, Track 3)

Original German

Es sungen drei Engel einen süßen Gesang,
mit Freuden es selig in dem Himmel klang.
Sie jauchzten fröhlich auch dabei:
daß Petrus sei von Sünden frei!

Und als der Herr Jesus zu Tische saß,
mit seinen zwölf Jüngern das Abendmahl aß,
da sprach der Herr Jesus: “Was stehst du denn hier?
Wenn ich dich anseh’, so weinest du mir!”

“Und sollt’ ich nicht weinen, du gütiger Gott?
Ich hab’ übertreten die zehn Gebot!
Ich gehe und weine ja bitterlich!
Ach komm und erbarme dich über mich!”

“Hast du denn übertreten die zehen Gebot,
so fall auf die Knie und bete zu Gott!
Liebe nur Gott in all Zeit!
So wirst du erlangen die himmlische Freud’.”

Die himmlische Freud’ ist eine selige Stadt,
die himmlische Freud’, die kein Ende mehr hat!
Die himmlische Freude war Petro bereit’t,
durch Jesum und allen zur Seligkeit.

In English

Three angels sang a sweet song,
with blessed joy it rang in heaven.
They shouted too for joy
that Peter was free from sin!

And as Lord Jesus sat at the table
with his twelve disciples and ate the evening meal,
Lord Jesus said: “Why do you stand here?
When I look at you, you are weeping!”

“And should I not weep, kind God?
I have violated the ten commandments!
I wander and weep bitterly!
O come and take pity on me!”

“If you have violated the ten commandments,
then fall on your knees and pray to God!
Love only God for all time!
So will you gain heavenly joy.”

The heavenly joy is a blessed city,
the heavenly joy that has no end!
The heavenly joy was granted to Peter
through Jesus, and to all mankind for eternal bliss.

One more movement to go!

The Mahler Symphonies Guided Tour – Symphony No 3: Movement IV

midnight_mist
Midnight Mist (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Where We’ve Been: Movement I: epic battle between winter and summer. Movement II: the delicate flowers. Movement III: a wild rumpus of animals.

But now we arrive at a moment of almost perfect stillness.

This movement is based on a very simple concept, but it’s beautifully executed. Mahler took some words by Nietzsche from Thus Spake Zarathustra. In particular, he latched onto some lines about the deep midnight talking. Then, by deliberate repetition of the word “deep” (tiefe) he creates music that sounds, well, deep and nocturnal.

Essentially, it is a call for man to emerge from darkness and pain and it starts to pave the way for the beauty of the last two movements.

(CD 2, Track 1, 0:00)

The whole movement is essentially a 10-minute long aria for alto based over gently rocking deep notes in the low basses. (If you’ve got a good memory, you might recognise this as a nod to the wintery music of the first movement.)

Every now and again, the oboe gives out a strange cry, like a bird at midnight (2:02, for instance). (And depending to what degree the oboist and conductor are adventurous, it can really start to sound like a long bird call.)

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht?
“Ich schlief, ich schlief -,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: –
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.

O Man! Take heed!
What says the deep midnight?
“I slept, I slept—,
from a deep dream have I awoken:—
the world is deep,
and deeper than the day has thought.

(Track 2, 0:00)

Tief ist ihr Weh -,
Lust – tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -,
– Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!”

Deep is its pain—,
joy—deeper still than heartache.
Pain says: Pass away!
But all joy
seeks eternity—,
—seeks deep, deep eternity!”
(Translation courtesy of Wikipedia.)

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 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?

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.

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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!)