A Guy Named George – Part 4: Secrets Hidden in the Royal College of Music

rcm-atmosphericA 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 me, here are the other parts:

A Guy Named George – Part 1: The Book That Changed My Life

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

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

If you’ve been following along with the previous posts then you’ll know I’d ended up in London in April 2016 trying to work out the secret of George Grove’s success in the classical music field. In the last post, I described how looking at George’s biography and a bit of sleuthing around Wikipedia led to the astonishing conclusion that Grove – a non-musician, from a working class background, running a series of concerts with an (arguably) second-rate orchestra with the same conductor every week, performing for an audience so unsophisticated it didn’t even know to sit down while the music was playing – was able to out-perform his more sophisticated rivals, the Philharmonia Societies (the Royal and the New).

I was madly curious to know what actually happened at these concerts of his in the Crystal Palace and for that, the internet wasn’t helping so much. So there was only one place to go – the closest thing that you could call a “home” for George Grove in London – The Royal College of Music, still regarded as one of England’s best music schoools.

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The Royal College of Music, defying being photographed in the London midday sun.

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I had lined up a chat a few weeks before with Dr Peter Horton, who works in the RCM library. He was amazingly helpful, and a fount of knowledge on all things to do with concerts in the 19th century. I know musicologists and researchers are probably used to these sorts of things, but as a lay person completely new to any sort of historical sleuthing, being able to chat to people who are full of knowledge and stories about a past era is nothing short of astounding.

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Down the Library corridor …
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The beautiful stained-glass windows of the RCM library.

After our discussion, I got to visit the Reading Room of the library. This itself, was a powerful experience. Because as well as being a charming old-school academic reading room right there, sitting on top of a bookshelf overlooking the reading tables – was Grove himself.

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The Grove bust, just sitting there on top of a bookshelf in the reading room.

It’s a slightly larger-than-live carved wooden bust (there’s a matching one in the room next door for Elgar) with no name caption – but there is no mistaking those mutton-chops. It was George and it was like he was waiting for me.

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George Grove.

I only had a few hours, so I decided to check out a couple of books on Grove and the Crystal Palace days, some of the old Crystal Palace programs and a couple of examples of Grove’s  “commonplace books”.

The commonplace books took my breath away, because I’ve never been connected with someone from the past so intimately before. To look at, a commonplace book is just a small hardbound book with blank musical staves in them. But this was more than blank sheet music – this was the equivalent of George Grove’s iPod favourites playlist. (Substitute whatever personal device you listen to your music on nowadays.)

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In the 19th century, when recorded music was still several decades away, what did you do if you really loved a piece of music, especially a symphony or something that required a large number of musicians? You might be lucky to hear it half a dozen times in your lifetime. And so, almost as a way of carrying the experience around, Grove had his commonplace book.

Any time Grove came across a musical idea that he particularly liked, he would make his own copy of the sheet music. Never the whole thing – you would have had to buy the sheet music for that – but maybe a theme that caught his ear. His favourites were clearly Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert because they cropped up again and again. So here, for instance, is the majestic French horn opening of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (“The Great”). Which sounds like this for those who can’t read music.

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I can just imagine Grove, flicking through his commonplace book, seeing that notation of the opening of the Schubert symphony and hearing the French horns firing up in his imagination. It made me wonder how many times he got to hear that symphony live in his lifetime. Did he listen extra closely every time he heard that theme, knowing that it would be several years before he’d get to ever hear it again. And, later in life, did he listen to it wondering if this would be the last time he would ever hear it?

The whole thing was utterly moving.

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And there were little quirky things – on one of the blank pages inside the commonplace book, he had written out in full the words to a hymn “Lead Kindly Light”. Why did he do that? Did he like that particular hymn tune? As a man who dug into his faith intellectually (he was a huge enthusiast for Biblical archaeology when he wasn’t doing music) but struggled with doubts, were these words a comfort for him? We’ll never know 100%, but it was fascinating.

And then on to the programme notes:

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I love the warning at the bottom – clearly this was an audience that was used to tromping in and out of things, regardless of what was happening on stage.

Very quickly I found out something amazing about these programme booklets. They weren’t just a random copy of the printed programs that had been kept for posterity. These were Grove’s own copies of the booklets. Flick through half a dozen of them and you’d find his familiar handwriting (and the ink of his fountain-pen or whatever pencil he had to hand, still just as dark and clear today as it was 150 years ago) scattered throughout. Holding it, you could just see him sitting in the Crystal Palace listening to the orchestra playing. He would think of a random idea, or perhaps something that he could have said differently in his notes, whip out his pen, and jot down his thoughts. That night, he’d add the program to his growing collection of the little booklets that were the trademark of that concert series.

But the really jaw-dropping fact emerged soon after I started checking out the second page of the programmes – the list of works that were to be performed at each concert. Suddenly, the penny dropped for me; I realised how he had gotten the crowds and grown his audiences. Look at this program – it’s a typical Crystal Palace Saturday afternoon concert program:

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Beginning and ending with exciting crowd-pleasing overtures, interspersed with lots of short songs and popular opera arias, and the only major work is the Beethoven Violin Concerto. A concert cleverly designed for newbies and classical music fans at the same time.

There were many, many concerts that had this sort of format – they would start with an overture (the opening music, if you like) from a ballet or operetta that was popular at the time. Then there would be a curious 5-minute interval. (Only 10 minutes into the concert!). Then after that a long classical work, like a piano concerto or symphony by Beethoven. Then a couple of singers would appear to do a number of popular arias from operas and others songs that are now long since out of popular rotation. There would be another 5 minute break and then one more final overture, followed by a bit of organ music for the next half hour while you got a chance to walk around (or “promenade” as they called it back then).

For those who aren’t used to classical concerts, let me say right now: this is completely different from how we do concerts today. This is the equivalent of starting a concert with 10 minutes of John Williams’ music from Star Wars VII, playing a major classical work, bringing out some singers to do a bit of popular musical theatre, and then finishing with some all-guns-blazing piece of crowd-pleasing orchestral action – like Thomas Bergersen, for instance. (If you’re sceptical, just listen to the last couple of minutes of that Sullivan “In Memoriam” overture that ends the concert. Totally designed to have the crowd roaring on their feet.)

But lest you think the Crystal Palace just sounds like a glorified 19th century André Rieu concert, flicking through the programme notes, we see that in the middle part, where they did the serious music, they were pretty determined to turn the audience into classical music nerds. They’d play the whole work, and Grove’s notes were thorough and methodical. He didn’t hold back from explaining key changes, sonata form structure and the other nerdy stuff. His language was enthusiastic and he was aiming at the lay-person, but he was determined that the lay-person could learn to love this music at the same level as the music nerds.

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George Grove having an enthusiastic gush (albeit a musically technical one) about how awesome he finds the Beethoven Violin Concerto. “An art which no one ever possesses, and perhaps no one ever will possess, as he did.”

In short, Grove was putting on a show that attempted to both please the crowds and yet make them more sophisticated at the same time. In short, the whole thing was built around the audience and it was designed to be fun. The dirty little secret of the Crystal Palace and their audience growth was finally out. The reason it took off was because they were giving the audience a good time. No wonder the poor old Royal Philharmonic Society couldn’t compete!

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Now in the 1860s, Grove can get away with putting two major works in the concerts – Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony and Beethoven’s E Flat Major Piano Concerto (which, interestingly enough, is not nicknamed the “Emperor” Concerto, as we would do today). But the program is still padded out with lighter, crowd-pleasers.

And clearly it worked. I looked through programs from the 1850s and then some from the 1860s and in a decade, the noticeable change was that the concerts had moved from having one lengthy major work to having two a decade later. (So an 1860s Crystal Palace would still start with light fluff, end with light fluff and have light fluff in the middle, but it might contain a concerto and a symphony mixed in the middle somewhere.)

I can’t prove this without doing a lot more research, but the evidence points to Grove’s “audience-first” approach starting to pay off. It took time, but gradually, his audience was getting a longer attention span and growing in sophistication.

Next time in this series on George Grove, in my final post on him, I’ll cover off why I think his influence died out, and what we can learn from him in the 21st century.

CD Review: Hyperion Schubert Edition Complete Songs Vols. 3 & 4

It’s been a while since I last reviewed any of the Hyperion Schubert Edition – in fact, so long, that I realised I managed to review volume 2 twice and give it two different scores. Anyway, you can read my reviewed for volume 1 here and volume 2 here and here. The short version for those who haven’t heard of this series before – English pianist Graham Johnson decided to record all of the 600+ songs of Franz Schubert for piano and voice. For every volume of this set of the complete songs, he signed up a different singer and picked a mix of famous and not-so-famous songs for them to sing. Then he would complete each volume by writing some of the most brilliant liner notes ever written, telling you everything you ever wanted to know about even the most obscure of songs.

But are the songs any good? Well, I would say that so far, volume 3 with Ann Murray is my absolute favourite. Ann is an alto with a beautiful control of long lines – she can hold a note without it becoming overpowering or irritating. If was to list three songs that you absolutely must listen to off the CD (and I believe the Hyperion label now allows you to buy individual tracks), I’d recommend An die Freunde (a moving song about a poet wanting to die with a beautiful change from minor to major in the middle), Der Zwerg (a creepily effective Gothic song about a dwarf that murders a queen) and the best of the lot would be Viola (about an anthropomorphic violet that wakes earlier than any of the other spring flowers and then dies sad and alone before the other flowers find her – it’s only about flowers, but the music is so sad and delicate that you can’t help feeling sorry for the flower.)

5 out of 5.

Volume 4 is especially relevant to being reviewed this week, because the singer for this volume, tenor Philip Langridge, sadly passed away of cancer just last week. I always find tenors a bit of a gamble – sometimes they sound like there’s too much strain in their voice or they’re loud and overpowering. The main thing I wasn’t immediately bowled over by with Langridge’s voice is that at the time of the  recording (either late 80s or early 90s), it sounded a bit old. But very quickly you realise that he has a great grasp of how to bring drama and meaning to every word. And Graham Johnson gives him a huge variety of songs to work with.

They range from the majestic and beautiful Auf der Riesenkoppe (On the Giant Peak) a patriotic song where the singer takes us up the side of the mountain, surveys the Austrian countryside and sings the praises of his native land. On the other end of the scale is the Epistle to Josef von Spaun, a friend of Schubert’s who’d moved away and hadn’t written to his friends in a long while. So to rile him up, Schubert composed the music for a letter to Spaun telling him what a barbarian and downright rotten friend he was. It’s done in mock Italian opera style, complete with ear-splitting high notes and mock drama. It’s the kind of song you wouldn’t expect to hear on a normal compilation of songs of Schubert, but that is the wonder of hearing the complete Schubert songs.

4 out of 5.

Am very much looking forward to volume 5, which I hope to start on soon.

CD Review: The Hyperion Schubert Edition Complete Songs – Vol. 2

In this age of digital music, I’m still a fan of CDs. I’m not opposed to MP3s, and the like. Certainly, iTunes is a great way of getting hold of a song from an album where you really only like one or two songs.

But, when it comes to buying classical music, I still love the CD. And this CD series would be a classic example of why. I’ve done an earlier review of Volume 1 in the series, but as a brief recap:

In the early 80s, the pianist Graham Johnson persuaded the Hyperion record label to let him release a complete collection of all the songs ever written by the composer, Franz Schubert. Considering that Schubert wrote over 600 songs in his short life (he died in his 30s), it was an immense recording project and took 37 CDs. I’m slowly collecting and listening to them.

Graham is the constant link in all of these CDs, and he accompanies all the songs, but he picks a different singer for each album. In this case, he picked the baritone, Stephen Varcoe.

Varcoe is not particularly famous outside of England (and even there, he may not be completely well-known), but he has a very pleasant baritone voice, which makes these songs very easy to listen to. (No unpleasant operatic belting here.)

Graham tends to group songs by theme, and in this second volume, he has picked a group of songs all themed around the idea of water. (Not, however, “The Trout” which would probably be the most famous Schubert song of all – or would that be “The Erl-King”? Hard to pick . . .)

As with all these volumes, because it is a complete set, you get some well-known songs and some really obscure ones, all side by side. What makes them interesting is the liner notes. Graham goes to town, writing several paragraphs for each song in the booklet, explaining what he’s doing in the piano, what the singer is doing with his voice, what Schubert is doing in the music, the background to the song, who the lyricist was, what’s going on in the music, etc. His level of knowlege is immense and his enthusiasm is infectious.

Also, there are interesting experiments. For instance, the first two tracks contain the same song lyrics set to different melodies. Schubert came back later in life and tried his hand at the same song. So by having them on the same CD, you get to hear how varying the accompaniment can change the whole tone of a song.

But probably the real main piece on this CD is a song that runs for half an hour that tells the legend off a young man that dives off a cliff into a swirling maelstrom to rescue a cup so that he can win the hand of the king’s daughter. It’s quite dramatic, with the piano all the time providing the dramatic accompaniment (like a soundtrack) to the whole thing.

All in all, a good album of lieder and it certainly made me happy to buy future albums in this series. Which I will hopefully get to review in due course.

4 out of 5.