Why Beethoven wrote the best music ever

Although it was of course mostly awful, the coronavirus lockdown also brought a gift – the gift of time. Finally, there was a chance to get that body into shape, master a new skill, reconnect with close friends and family, …

Me, I seem to have spent it all watching YouTube.

That’s not a complete waste of time. There’s a lot of good stuff on there, not least for music nerds. People such as Adam Neely, David Bruce, David Bennet and 12tone manage to make music theory and analysis accessible, even fun. Quite an accomplishment.

And then, I bumped into this one:

I know that title is deliberately crude and silly. It’s supposed to make me mad so I would click on it and – even better – leave a comment. That’s how YouTube works. Well, how the internet works, really.

Beethoven best composer
It never fails.

The movie is a lot more nuanced than you would expect from its title. Its point is not that Beethoven sucks at music. Just that his status as the greatest composer in history is not – and cannot be – based on any objective truth. Because there’s no way to measure musical quality.

So why do we accept Beethoven’s greatness – or Mozart’s, or Bach’s, but never Chevalier de Saint George’s or Florence Price’s? The answer is that the canon of classical music was first compiled by late-19th century Germans who naturally favored the big names of German music.

And now we’re stuck with a classical music culture that’s biased against women, people of color, and all the other folks that 19th century Germans weren’t so keen on. It’s time for change. Let’s take Beethoven of the programs for a few years and give the stage to some unheard voices – as was suggested in this excellent, similarly themed podcast.

All this could have been the perfect intro to a good old rant about ‘woke madness’. But that’s not what I have in mind. In fact, a lot of these reevaluations of our classical canon make perfect sense. They’re also not nearly as new some people think. They’re just finally making it into the mainstream. Which is about time.

But I find it hard to believe that the canon, as 12tone puts it, “has nothing to do with musical quality.” Beethoven’s place on top of the musical Olympus is down to more than him being “in the right place at the right time”. Just consider that …

1. Not all attempts at shaping the canon are successful.

It’s true: the idea of the divide between serious/visionary versus popular/derivative composers is deeply connected to German nationalism. This official version of the musical 19th century can be summarized as follows:

  • All of music culminated in and started again with Beethoven.
  • The ‘progressives’ such as Liszt and Wagner explored Beethoven’s adventurous side.
  • The ‘classicists’ such as Schumann and Brahms devoted themselves to guarding Beethoven’s classical legacy.
  • These two factions were united by Arnold Schoenberg, who was deeply rooted in tradition and showed the way forward – in other words, a new Beethoven.

You might notice that there are a lot of people who don’t fit into that picture. Chopin, for example who didn’t even like Beethoven’s music very much. And indeed, there was a time when this Polish Frenchman was looked down upon in serious music circles. Not only because of his Polish Frenchness, but because his music didn’t quite fit the ‘logical’ progression that would culminate in Schoenberg.

Speaking about Schoenberg, does anybody still believe that he’ll be remembered as the greatest composer of the twentieth century? That he’ll be as popular as Beethoven once people ‘get over’ the unfamiliar harmonies and lack of singable tunes? On the contrary, the popularity of ‘reactionary’, ‘neoromantic’ near-contemporaries such as Vaughan-Williams and Copland seems continuously on the rise.

There definitely was – still is and always will be – an attempt at shaping the canon top-down. But it doesn’t always work. In time, an essential run-down of the top musical names of the last two centuries will include Chopin rather than Schumann, Elgar rather than Richard Strauss and Lennon-McCartney rather than Stockhausen.

Stockhausen Sgt. Pepper's
You might know Stockhausen from the cover Sgt. Pepper’s.

That’s because …

2. The opinion of the masses does matter

“Liking Beethoven is seen as a sign of class and taste”, says 12tone in his video. That’s only true up to a point. I dare you to introduce yourself to a group of pretentious classical music lovers with the confident declaration that you love Für Elise, the Fifth Symphony and the Ode to Joy. You will be greeted with chilly silence and smug smirks. Perhaps someone will ask you if you also like Tchaikovsky’s Overture 1812. If so, please don’t answer. It’s sarcasm at your expense.

If you really want to impress that imaginary group of snobs, clearly state your appreciation for:

  • Beethoven’s late string quartets, not the Mondschein sonata
  • Verdi’s Falstaff, not Aida
  • Bach’s Kunst der Fuge, not his Air
  • The list goes on and on.

There’s an unwritten rule among classical elitists that ‘great’ composers are great despite their popular appeal. In other words: if the masses also happen to like them, they do it for the wrong reasons.

When someone states that the elite imposed the canon based on their own aesthetic principles, they’re buying into this myth that the elite entertains about its own power. A lot of times, canonizing is just adding intellectual veneer to a choice that has already been made in the court of popular opinion.

This doesn’t mean that the canon is no more than a long-term hit parade. If that were true, Rossini would be considered the greatest composer of all time. Professional arbiters of taste – such as journalists, academics and musicians – can influence rankings by leveraging their standing in society. But catapulting a nobody with merely ‘interesting’ music to the musical pantheon? Never happened.

What works best is to encourage people to listen more closely to music they already like. Tell them to which deeper layers they should listen and there’s a good chance they will enthusiastically agree. If only because they don’t want to be thought of as unsophisticated. And sometimes because they truly enjoy the music on a deeper level. The chance of that happening is seldom greater than with Beethoven. That’s because …

3. Beethoven and his contemporaries hit a sweet spot that’s difficult to match

In his famous work on the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven – The Classical Style – Charles Rosen writes:

“The procedures of Haydn and Mozart must be understood in a larger context, that of the creation of a popular style which abandons none of the pretensions of high art. Their achievement is perhaps unique in Western music. […] Only for one brief historical period in the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Haydn and some of the Schubert songs, has the utmost sophistication and complexity of musical technique existed alongside – or better, fused with – the virtues of the street song.”

Rosen doesn’t include Beethoven in this list, except for the final movement of the Ninth. That’s because he seems to consider only recognizable (pseudo-)folk tunes as popular melodies. But isn’t something like the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony one of the greatest ‘hooks’ in the history of music?

Google search Beethoven 5
Yes, that one.

The whole art of this first Viennese school was to build sophisticated structures with simple elements. And maybe this is the reason why their music remains the best gateway into the pleasure that a complex piece of music can bring. The irresistible and instantly memorable tunes not only draw you in, but also help you to understand, experience and enjoy the larger form.

Once you’re into that listening habit, you can start enjoying music which is pure abstraction, foregoing those catchy tunes and other pleasing elements altogether. Although, quite frankly, why should you have to?

4. Beethoven is a rock star

Stop your eye-roll, I’m not claiming that Beethoven was the rock star of his times. I’m saying that he is one right now. Wait, didn’t Chuck Berry roll him over? But that’s the point. Chuck chose Beethoven – even though he didn’t even fit his rhyme scheme – because Beethoven is an idol. That’s also why 12tone chose him, and why we’re all supposed to get super mad because they’re trying to erase him from our history. Trust me, if Chuck Berry couldn’t cancel Beethoven, neither can a bunch of underpaid woke scholars in musicology. If they wanted to. Which they don’t.

Beethoven is not a darling of the elite foisted upon us, he’s a part of our global popular culture. That’s because of his literal image – the bushy hair, the shabby clothes. And because of his supposed unconformity and disdain for social conventions which aligns perfectly with how a lot of people like to see themselves – especially when they’re young.

The bottom line is: Beethoven is cool. And apart from his afro and his attitude, I think there are a number of musical reasons for why he’s such a good fit with our popular music culture:

  • His repertoire is mainly instrumental, which helps because the handling of the voice is what puts a lot of people off classical music.
  • His music has a rhythmic drive that combines a regular beat with plenty of syncopation, just like a lot of jazz and popular music.
  • His harmonic language is tonal – not too chromatic and complex but not too bland either, with plenty of major/minor shifts. From the classical/romantic composers, only Schubert was closer to pop music harmony in this respect.
  • Most importantly, but hardest to describe, Beethoven’s music – at least that from his ‘heroic’ middle period – has an emotional charge that resonates well with how a lot of people still define ‘depth’ in music. It’s sad but not schmaltzy, sarcastic but not funny, noble but not arrogant, … You get my point – or not. It’s why today we value acts like Nick Cave or The National. It’s not only about the notes, it’s also about the attitude.

To conclude: Beethoven is not the greatest composer of all time, but he is the greatest classical composer for our time. That’s not because his music is objectively the best. But it’s also not because we’re collectively brainwashed by a white supremacist elite. It’s because his music like no other from the classical tradition combines accessibility with what we perceive as emotional depth. And it’s because of his hair.

Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland

From Vivaldi and Haydn to Stravinsky and The Beatles, the joy that comes with the return of spring has inspired great pieces of music. And if you wouldn’t know any better, you’d think Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring is one of them.

It starts with a clarinet and flute that timidly play three notes that could – or could not – be the beginning of a melody. Like snowdrops that bud in what could – or could not – be the last of snow. And after some back-and-forths between extasy and doubt, the piece ends with five variations on a glorious Shaker melody – Simple Gifts – that’s Copland version of an Ode to Joy. Summer is definitely on its way!

But as much as that interpretation makes sense, it’s not how Appalachian Spring was intended. In fact, the work could have been called Autumn in Arkansas and sounded more or less the same.

The story

Copland’s Appalachian Spring started as a score for a ballet that was commissioned in 1942. The story was written by choreographer Martha Graham, and it too had nothing to do with spring. Its recounts the day of two newlyweds in pioneer country. And contains a few interesting sidekicks such as a preacher and his congregation.

Seen here congregating. Here’s the full ballet.

In the original version, all these fun and games were interrupted by the arrival of a fugitive slave. But that part was eventually changed to a dance solo by the possessed preacher. The end result is more a loose string of tableaux than an actual plot.

And the name? Martha Graham came up with it when the music and choreography were already finished. She took it from a poem by Hart Crane – simply because she liked the sound of it. Moreover, the poem refers to a natural water source, not the season of new beginnings.

Capturing the American soul

Maybe it’s because of its flimsy story, but Appalachian Spring – first performed in 1944 – immediately became widely popular as a sort of parable for the post-war American spirit of renewal. Copland’s pleasant and seemingly uncomplicated musical language was the perfect complement to the cast of rural characters eagerly displaying their moral fortitude. Appalachian spring was exactly the kind of artwork that could inspire a nation destined to become the leader of the free world.

In a way, this was what drove Copland throughout his career: defining an American form of art music – sometimes derived from popular and folk idioms such as jazz or Shaker hymns. It’s a bit of a nationalist agenda, from an era when nationalism was not exclusively linked to the political right. As an active communist, Copland wrote his ‘populist’ music as a tribute to the dignity and authenticity of the common man, in opposition to the soulless cultural products of the capitalist mass media. You could say he was a highbrow Woody Guthrie.

Aaron Copland, composer of Appalachian Spring.
Aaron Copland in 1946. Presumably during a blackout.

Wholesome orchestral suite

But in post-war America, there was no need for left-wing populism, or left-wing anything for that matter. As a Jewish homosexual communist, Copland ticked all the boxes to be summoned to the McCarthy hearings. He managed to talk himself out of serious sanctions, but wisely kept a low political profile for the rest of his career.

Meanwhile, his orchestral suite based on the ballet score of Appalachian Springs soared in popularity. Far from an incitement to class warfare, it was considered a wholesome piece of Americana. Copland had indeed defined the American sound, but it was now used as musical shorthand for the shiny city on the hill where anyone could make it through hard work. Just listen to the music in this iconic Ronald Reagan commercial:

Versions of Appalachian Spring

For the intellectual classes of the United States, and especially post-war Europe, everything with mass appeal conjured up the trauma of what masses were capable of when they fell into the hands of a ruthless leader. They pretended to listen to Boulez and Stockhausen and had no time for ‘commercial’, even ‘regressive’ music such as Appalachian Springs. It’s only since accessible music came back into fashion that the work is universally considered to be one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.

And yet, there are some who feel that Appalachian Springs – the orchestral suite – doesn’t have enough depth. Or that it lacks authenticity. They have two solutions for this:

  1. Go back to the original chamber ensemble, with nice results such as the reference recording by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or more this more recent version by Ensemble K.
  2. Put the music back in that Copland removed when he turned the ballet music into a suite. The logic being that this fragment – originally meant to accompany the fugitive slave – is a dark interlude that adds much-needed drama to the musical development. Michael Tilson Thomas is a big proponent of this idea. Christopher Hogwood embraced it is as well. I’m not a fan. The reinstated music is indeed dark(ish), but also kind of boring. And it breaks the wonderful flow of the Simple Gifts variations.

The ultimate version

In the end, it doesn’t matter which version they choose to perform. The definitive recording was made almost 60 years ago. No, it’s not directed by the man himself. In his recordings of Appalachian Spring, I feel Copland goes too much out of his way to demonstrate how sophisticated this deceivingly simple music is – making sure you don’t miss any of the individual threads that make up the dense musical fabric.

Copland’s good friend Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, just wants to make as much of an emotional impact as he can. Contrapuntal subtleties be damned, his recording with the New York Philharmonic simply blows you away. Literally, because the sound of the brass is especially exhilarating. The audio quality of this recording is astounding, especially for that time.

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland
Bernstein and Copland comparing dental work in 1945.

Bernstein pulls no punches. The slow parts crawl by and sound lusciously romantic, while he accelerates to warp speed when he needs to. What Bernstein understood better than Copland – and many other directors – is how to breath life into the dance rhythms that characterize large portions of the work. They’re supposed to evoke square dancing, but Copland doesn’t so much seem to channel the pioneer time as the Brooklyn melting pot that he grew up in. This is truly American music, after all.

Just listen

Hungry for some more classical Americana? Check out Missy Mazzoli’s pioneer opera Proving Up.

Are these the best classical albums of 2020?

Probably not. But out of the ones I’ve heard, I’ve enjoyed these the most:

10. The Leipzig Circle, Vol 2. (London Bridge Trio)

The Leipzig Circle record sleeve

If I were making a list of silliest sentences in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “[the first movement of the featured Felix Mendelssohn trio] has both firmness and determination that immediately declare it to be a strong and masculine conception.”

Luckily, the performance is a lot better than the commentary. It demonstrates that Clara Schumann’s feminine conceptions didn’t stop her from writing music that was on a par with Mendelssohn’s. And that Robert Schumann surpassed them both. In imagination, not testosterone.

9. Miroir (Alexandre Collard, Jean Daufresne and Mathilde Nguyen)

Miroir record sleeve

If I were making a list of understatements in CD booklets, this one would take the top spot: “Rarely, in the history of music, have composers written for horn, saxhorn and piano.”

In fact, only one work on this album was originally written for that combination – after a special request from the performers. In any case, it sounds amazing. Moreover, this record brings to light some unfamiliar and underrated repertoire from Belgian and French composers from the 19th through 21st centuries.

8. Debussy – Rameau (Vikingur Ólafsson)

Debussy - Rameau record sleeve

This one will feature on many ‘best of 2020’ lists. And if the Icelandic pianist releases another record in 2021, it will probably end up on that year’s lists as well. Because he’s as good as the hype that surrounds him.

This record would have ended up higher on my list if Ólafsson wouldn’t have made the misguided decision of combining Rameau with Debussy. Not because they make a bad couple. But because I don’t like Debussy’s piano music. Or the unacceptable way he wears a hat.

7. Anna Clyne: DANCE – Edward Elgar: Cello Concerto (Inbal Segev, London Philharmonic Orchestra & Marin Alsop)

Clyne-Elgar record sleeve

Now here’s someone who knows how to wear a hat:

Anna Clyne
Perfect!

No melodies moved me more last year than the sentimental, folk-influenced themes that form the basis of the four dances – excuse me, DANCES – by Anna Clyne.

The expressive style of cellist Inbal Segev serves them well. Although it steals too much of the spotlight from the orchestra. That’s especially true in the Elgar concerto. If you’re a fan of that work – and who isn’t? – the 2020 recording by Sheku Kanneh-Mason is probably a better choice.

6. Blessed Art Thou Among Women (PaTRAM Institute Singers)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women record sleeve

One of the greatest pleasures in life is listening to the sound of oktavists, the ultra-low bass singers that feature in Russian music. They’re abundantly present on this record, rumbling their way through four centuries of enchanting orthodox choral music.

If, God forbid, 2021 turns out to be another year in which we need extra comfort, this album is guaranteed to provide it. Just let the sounds of those amazing human didgeridoos gently vibrate your worries away.

5. Bohemian Tales (Augustin Hadelich)

Bohemian Tales record sleeve

Some stuff that you know, some stuff that you don’t. That remains the perfect mix for a classical concert or album. Often, the unfamiliar work that you dreaded makes more of an impression than the well-known piece that you came for.

That was certainly the case with this recording of Bohemian violin music. I was lured in by Dvořák and Janáček, but it was the Op. 17 by Josef Suk that blew me away – less ‘romantic’ than Dvořák, more ‘popular’ than Janáček and with a unique approach to musical form.

Intrigued, I decided to seek out more music by Suk, especially his orchestral works. And I quickly decided that it wasn’t worth another second of my time. But it could have been the beginning of an exciting journey of musical discovery, is what I’m saying.

4. Beethoven: Songs & Folksongs (Ian Bostridge, Antonio Pappano)

Beethoven songs and folksongs record sleeve

For obvious reasons, 2020 will not be remembered as ‘the year we celebrated the 250th birthday of Beethoven’. But it was an excellent year to explore Beethoven with a small b. Confined to my home, an album full of ‘domestic’ compositions was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Apart from the visionary An die ferne Geliebte cycle, the Beethoven songs are generally considered of little importance. And that’s even more true of his settings of Irish, British, Scottish and Welsh folk songs that he purely made – gasp! – for money. It’s to Bostridge’s credit that he applies his otherworldly talent to these supposedly mundane compositions – and reveals that they are anything but that.

3. Proving Up (Missy Mazzoli)

Proving Up record sleeve

2020 was also the year in which we witnessed how the American democracy nearly drove itself off a cliff.

There are a lot of reasons for what happened during the last four years. One of them is the destructive idea behind the American dream. Missy Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek turned that into a wonderful opera. And I’m not going to repeat what I already wrote about it.

2. Not Our First Goat Rodeo (Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile)

Not Our First Goat Rodeo record sleeve

Wait, is this a classical album?

Well, on the one hand, it’s labelled by the record company as such. It includes Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. And in what other category would you put a track like Not For Lack of Trying?

On the other hand, who cares? I don’t trust jazz or bluegrass fans enough to feel confident that they will include this record in their end-of-year lists. And this joyous display of musicianship and collaboration cannot get enough praise from every corner.

1. Adès Conducts Adès (Boston Symphony Orchestra)

Adès conducts Adès record sleeve

Of the contemporary composers on this list, Thomas Adès is probably the most ‘difficult’ one. And yet, if you listen to some connoisseurs, you’d think he’s one cowbell removed from becoming André Rieu.

That’s probably because Adès’ music packs an emotional punch that resonates with a lot of people. Which makes it suspect in the ears of some.

Yet you only need to listen to the second movement of his piano concerto to realize that this guy is something special. There are echoes from many traditions, but the language is unique. And underneath is a musical progression that you don’t need to fully understand to be overwhelmed by it. That’s something that only comes around, well, every 250 years or so.

Did I just imply that Adès is the new Beethoven? Must be the champagne talking. All I wanted to say is: some things that came out of 2020, are worth remembering. Happy New Year!

Review: Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli

Many years ago, I shared a house with a friend who’s a fan of Richard Wagner. As proof of his devotion, he owned a box of all the Meister‘s recordings. The thing took up half a shelf in a CD cabinet that had to be shared by four music enthusiasts. As I recall, none of those music dramas was ever played.

And they never would be. With each move, that friend takes his Wagner box off the shelf and brings it to its new home. Never opening it ­­– as if it’s the urn with his grandmother’s ashes.

Richard Wagner CD box
And only slighly more jolly.

Opera recordings: why bother?

Of course, my friend is by no means an exception. Nor is this phenomenon limited to Wagner CDs. We think complete opera recordings are essential to our collection, but how often do we really play them?

After all, we didn’t need Wagner to know that opera is a gesamtkunstwerk – an indivisible union of music, stage design and acting. That means only listening to the recording is missing out on 66.66 % of the fun.

So usually I’m not bouncing with enthusiasm whenever a new opera recording hits the shelves. But recently, I was proven wrong. By Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up.

Missy Mazzoli's proving up

Short and clear

With 80 minutes for the whole thing, Proving Up is shorter than the first act of Parsifal. And that’s the first thing I like about this opera: its brevity. Is that shallow of me? So be it. I really wouldn’t know where to fit in multiple listening sessions of five-hour dramas. So it’s nice to be able to hear a full story unfold while doing the laundry or riding the train.

The second amazing thing about this recording is its sound quality. That sets it apart from another contemporary opera recording that I highly anticipated: Prisoner of the State by David Lang. Being a Lang fan, I loved the music. But the awful live recording was a big disappointment. Live opera recordings are the worst: the sound of slamming doors and creaking floorboards that ruin your listening experience and remind you of the visual spectacle you’re missing out on.

Ghost story

Missy Mazzoli writes contemporary music of the accessible variety. But don’t count on skipping the recitatives and going straight to the arias and choruses. Proving Up is the real-deal through-composed opera stuff, where the music is not allowed to follow its own logic but must align on its course with the text and the action.

The action, remember, that you can’t see. So why didn’t I miss it while listening to this recording? I think it’s because of how Mazzoli’s music strikes the right balance between painting a general mood, so it sounds like a pleasing whole, and differentiating the consecutive events, so you don’t fall asleep.

Proving Up is a ghost story set in the age of the American pioneers. Everything revolves around the Zender family desperate to ‘prove up’: acquire the ownership of the land they’re living on. Just like Copland before her, Missy Mazzoli conjures the plains of the Midwest by using lots of open, wide-spaced chords. The many augmented and diminished intervals express the hardships of the characters and/or the horror that threatens their existence.

Against that solid background, every one of the characters gets a distinctive voice that borrows from a different musical style. My favorite one is the somewhat naive son Miles who sounds like he’d rather be in a Broadway musical. He serenates the pigs and his horse, and the moment when he passionately sings the line “What a beautiful day for a window delivery.” is without a doubt the funniest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve heard in a long time – at least in a contemporary opera.

Miles comes to his untimely end when he meets the sodbuster – a ghost who condemns him in a wonderful scene that reminded me of the parts with the ghost of Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Just like in Don Giovanni, the closing scene that follows it feels like a bit of an anticlimax. That’s despite its beautiful music, this time dominated by the figure of the family’s mother who fittingly sings like the quintessential dramatic opera diva. The most clairvoyant figure in the piece, she mourns the passing of her children, and of the American dream.

Even better than the real thing?

It’s the succession of vivid, musically distinct scenes that kept me hooked to this recording. If I never missed the action, it’s because I had no trouble imagining it. I’m now so pleased with Proving Up’s staging in my head that I have almost no desire to see the real thing. Even though it does look wonderful:

Want to picture your own version of Proving Up? Check it out on CD, Spotify or Apple Music.

Review: Víkingur Ólafsson’s Debussy – Rameau

Jean-Philippe Rameau and Claude Debussy were both French.

In my mind, that’s about the only thing they have in common. You’ll soon find out why.

But in Víkingur Ólafsson’s mind, Rameau and Debussy have an intimate connection – despite the almost 200 years between them.

And Ólafsson is one of the hottest new piano virtuosos right now. So his opinion is worth a lot more than mine. Moreover, he enforced it by recording an album that illustrates that connection.

Debussy - Rameau cover

Apart from illustrating that you’re never too old to enjoy finger painting.

Ear-opener

Debussy – Rameau is not the most imaginatively named record of the year. You wouldn’t suspect that this is a ‘concept album’: Ólafsson carefully chose and arranged the tracks so the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts.

There’s an idea that he wants to convey:

“make [Rameau and Debussy] into musical friends and create a dialogue that might show Rameau in a futuristic light, and find Debussy’s deep roots in the French Baroque”

Does he succeed? Certainly, his interpretation of Rameau was an ear-opener to me.

Maybe it’s because I only knew his keyboard works from harpsichord performances.
Maybe because he literally wrote the rule book of tonal harmony.
Maybe because of the schoolmasterish air that exudes from his portraits.

The fact is I never realized how emotional and intense Rameau’s music can be.

Jean-Philippe Rameau

Jolts of pleasure

This intensity of Rameau’s music is exactly what Ólafsson makes clear. Not by adding pathos or making grand gestures. But by charging the music with palpable tension.

From the very first note of every one of these little pieces, you get the feeling that there’s a massive amount of sadness, joy, melancholy, rage … bubbling beneath the surface.

Sometimes it makes a ripple in the neatly woven musical canvas: an ornamental figure drawing attention to itself, an accompanying melody in one of the middle voices making a bold statement.

Thanks to Ólafsson transparent and sensitive style, none of these details go unnoticed. And each one rewards the listener with a little jolt of pleasure.

I like it, is what I’m trying to say. And I understand how this ‘impressionistic’ Rameau would pair well with his compatriote from almost two centuries later.

Even if that’s a connection I don’t feel

Moments of irritation

I can only assume that Ólafsson’s interpretation of Debussy is just as good. Because I’m convinced that the only thing a skilled pianist needs in order to give an adequate Debussy performance is a functioning sustain pedal.

You see, I’m not a big fan of Debussy’s piano music. To put it mildly. From his dull pentatonic melodies to his endless ‘dreamy’ scales up and down the keyboard – they irritate me to no end.

Claude Debussy with a hat

And in what universe is that an acceptable way to wear a hat?

Claude Debussy with hat indoors

Seriously.

There’s only one Debussy track on the album that doesn’t make reach for the skip button: Jardins sous la pluie is a lively piece in the style of a baroque toccata. It fits in perfectly with the Rameau pieces and makes me realize that Ólafsson’s concept works. Even if I can’t fully enjoy it.

Fortunately, on this album, there’s a lot more Rameau to enjoy than Debussy to be irritated by. And if you like them both, you will no doubt be swept away from the first note to the last.

Acis and Galatea: Handel the comedian

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. Third stop: Canons Park.

There are dozens of unique sights you can marvel at when visiting London. Canons Park is not one of them. On the contrary, it’s reassuring in its ordinariness. It’s the perfect spot when you want a vacation from vacationing.

The main place of interest is the extensive park that gave its name to this suburb. These are the former grounds of Cannons house, the humble dwellings of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, and one of the first English patrons of Handel.

James Brydges, patron of G.F. Handel

Handel supposedly lived under the Duke’s roof from 1717 until 1719. Here, he wrote my favorite among his theatre works: Acis and Galatea. It was probably first performed in what is now Canons Park. The setting would have looked like a typical 18th century pleasure world of rocks, fountains and grottos.

Pastoral scene

Like this, but slightly less French.

I had to imagine all that when I listened to the whole piece – sitting on a 21st century park bench. Within minutes, the plodding joggers and poorly rested young mothers turned into joyful shepherds and seductive nymphs. Such is the power of music.

The story

Strictly speaking, Acis and Galatea is not an opera but a pastoral masque. What’s the difference? For one thing, a masque probably wasn’t fully acted out. It’s also a lot shorter, because it was usually performed as a light intermezzo in between acts of real operatic works.

Pastoral stories were very popular during the 17th and 18th centuries. They looked exactly like you imagine them: horny shepherds and shepherdesses chasing each other through a decor of idealized nature.

On a (slightly) deeper level, the pastoral deals with true love. Specifically the idea that it cannot depend on duty – like a marriage – but only truly exists in a world that is unconnected to the rules of society.

Paqtoral love scene

Hót.

The story of Acis and Galatea, which is based on Ovid, perfectly fits that description. I’m barely simplifying when I summarize the action as:

  • The nymph Galatea is looking for the shepherd Acis.
  • The shepherd Acis is looking for the nymph Galatea.
  • Acis and Galatea find each other and sing merrily.
  • The cyclops Polyphemus declares his love for Galatea.
  • Polyphemus gets angry when Galatea doesn’t love him back.
  • Polyphemus kills Acis.
  • Galatea is very sad and uses her divine powers to give Acis eternal life – in the form of a fountain.

The music

The story of Acis and Galatea was probably suggested to Handel by John Gay and Alexander Pope. They were members of the Scribblers Club: a circle of gentlemen who believed in the power of the classical pastoral.

Incidentally, it’s his connection to ‘arcadian’ gentlemen’s clubs like these that’s partly responsible for the rumor that Handel was gay.

In any case, we owe these gentlemen our gratitude. Because Acis and Galatea holds a unique position in Handel’s oeuvre.

You see, during this period, Handel was mainly bent on making it as a composer of Italian operas. And the typical Italian opera of those days was as boring as watching paint dry. It consisted of an endless parade of characters who sang their highly standardized arias – barely interacting with each other.

Were Handel’s Italian operas any different? Not really. Although they contain a lot of lovely music, I dare anyone to sit through one of them without checking her clock at least once.

The beginning of Acis and Galatea is a lot like Italian opera: lovely but entirely conventional. Luckily, before boredom sets in, Polyphemus breaks into the arcadian order. And he also tears the musical canvas:

After this wonderful dramatic entry, we soon realize that Polyphemus is not a horrific monster at all. He’s an amiable simpleton. A bit crude, maybe, but more fun to be around than the pretentious couple that dominated the first act.

He immediately launches into a kind of English country song – the first aria that breaks with the typical ABA form:

Acis and Galatea now becomes a work where two (musical) worlds collide: the high-brow pastoral of the title characters and the low-brow parody of Polyphemus. This culminates in a trio that I think is one of the most powerful moments in the history of musical drama:

While Acis and Galatea croon a beautiful, but also artificial ode to the purity of their love … Polyphemus’ ‘counterpoint’ is as clumsy as it is real. His words aren’t poetry but cries from the heart: “Fury … Rage … I cannot bear.” His music isn’t melody but a loose succession of the simplest of intervals: octaves, seconds.

And yet, when it comes together, the sum is much larger than its parts. It’s the work of a dramatic genius.

Acis and Galatea and Mozart

A dramatic genius, it seems, who was not always very aware of his greatest strengths. According to some sources, Handel wasn’t so keen on the idea of making a buffoon of Polyphemus. And in later revisions, he lessened the comic character a bit.

Seventy years after the premiere of Acis and Galatea, Acis und Galatea was performed in Vienna. It was a re-orchestration of Handel’s masque by Mozart – whose own comic pieces take up three spots in the list of the ten most popular operas today. Their stars have names like Papageno, Figaro and Leporello. They should all doff their hats at their modest predecessor: the amiable monster Polyphemus.

Was Handel Gay?

If you like “sensuous coming-of-age stories” – and who doesn’t? – there’s a novel out about George Frideric Handel’s life in the closet.

If the author hoped to create a Twitter storm around the idea of a homosexual Handel, she’s almost twenty years too late. Handel regularly features at the top of lists of LGBTQ composers, and his gayness was cited as a fact on which musicologists “seem to agree” in the New York Times.

Besides, didn’t the composer himself remove all remaining doubts by cowriting a Pet Shop Boys song in 2012?

Gay Handel
“What have I done to deserve this?”

Fact or gossip?

I admit that I myself have frequently enjoyed repeating this juicy piece of knowledge. However, I almost never got the shocked response I was hoping for. Probably because people consider a certain level of gayness self-evident in an era where all gentlemen of means chose to dress like Liberace.

Typical 18th century man.
Fabulous

It seems I owe all these people an apology. Because I recently decided to check the facts instead of acting like a common gossipmonger. And I found that the idea of a homosexual Handel is completely baseless.

Why Handel could have been gay

The rumors around Handel’s sexuality mainly originate from the book Handel as Orpheus by Ellen T. Harris. Although I should immediately add that Ms. Harris herself has since declared that the belief that she dubbed Handel a homosexual is “ridiculous”.

So, what did she write in her book? Mainly that:

  • Handel spent a lot of his early years loitering in Italian courts and English country estates that were regularly frequented (if not run) by men with same-sex desires.
  • the works which he wrote there (the Italian cantatas and theatrical works such as Acis and Galatea) contain homosexual subtexts, for instance in the way they avoid identifying the gender of the person being lovingly serenated.

Add that to the undisputable fact that Handel remained a bachelor all his life, and one might start to wonder …

Why Handel wasn’t gay

In two articles on Handel’s social circles in Rome and London, Thomas McGeary convincingly buried the idea that Handel was surrounded by homosexual men.

There’s just not a shred of evidence that places like Cannons or Burlington House were hotspots of homoerotic activity. And there are no contemporary sources that link people like Alexander Pope or even the conspicuously named John Gay to homosexual behaviors.

You might think that such an absence of first-hand accounts is due to 18th century squeamishness about the love that dare not speak its name. But you would be wrong. At least in England, accusing public figures of sodomy was a national pastime. And as a foreign-born composer of ‘effeminate’ Italian operas, with strong ties to the not universally loved German royal family, Handel would have made an ideal victim.

Burlington house
Burlington House as it looked in Handel’s days. Not pictured: homosexual men.

That Handel wasn’t gay doesn’t make him straight

Although it’s a lot less ludicrous, this discussion bears some resemblance to the claim that Beethoven was black. Just like people from African descent, the LGBTQ community could use more high-profile icons in the domain of classical music. It’s almost a pity that historical evidence doesn’t allow them that satisfaction.

However, there’s also an important difference. While a non-black Beethoven is evidently a white Beethoven, a not openly gay Handel is not necessarily a heterosexual Handel. It’s just a Handel of whom we don’t know the sexual inclinations.

That goes for almost all composers before the late 19th century. Taking on a homosexual identity was literally unthinkable in those days. So it’s impossible to say which way their deepest desires went.

And does that matter? Is there such a thing as gay music? That’s worth a wholly separate discussion.

Village people
Don’t automatically say no. Think it through.

For the moment, I’ll leave you with a piece of gossip that is verified. In the privacy of his own home, the composer of the manliest oeuvre of the 19th century preferred lace corsets to steel armor and winged helmets.

Do you want more speculations about Handel’s love life? Here you go: he might have been in love with England’s most exceptional queen.

Review: Dag Wirén String Quartets

Apparently, Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring this year. That means you only have a few weeks left to enjoy the winter with its perfect soundtrack: the Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet.

Dag Wirén string quartets

Dag Wirén: not a man of words

Never heard of Dag Wirén? Neither did I before this record caught my attention. Some quick facts:

Wirén already stopped composing in 1970, stating: “One should stop in time, while one still has time to stop in time.”

Dag Wirén

Luckily, his music is more memorable than his aphorisms.

Timeless craftmanship

Wirén’s style, especially in his early years, can only be described as neoclassical. To my ears: very neoclassical. Actually, he sounds like Brahms with a pair of warm woolen mittens.

But who cares that he was not hip with the times? Especially if he managed to come up with compositions such as his third string quartet, my favorite one on this record.

Its first movement starts off with a softly rocking accompaniment. Like a flower from under a snow bed, the first violin rises to the surface with the basic melody. Gradually, the other instruments join in to start a fascinating dialogue based on that motif. And just when their disagreement reaches its climax, the conversation abruptly halts and begins anew.

The second, slow movement is a romantic piece based on a pining melody that I’m sure I’ve heard before but can’t quite place. Drop me a note in the comments if you can help me out.

After the short but stirring minuet, the quartet closes with a finale where Wirén waves a tapestry out of the basic melodies of the previous three movements.

None of this would have sounded innovative in 1941. And it sounds even less so today. But the way Wirén develops and combines his musical themes bears witness to a timeless craftmanship that engages your attention while still being easy on the ears. And sometimes that’s all you need during those darkest days of the year.

Pizzicati and … er … stuff

What’s left for a composer after writing a neoclassical masterpiece such as that third string quartet? Judging from his fourth and fifth quartets, also included on this record, Wirén chose to adopt a more modern style. Not Stockhausen or Ligeti modern though, more like Sibelius and Shostakovich modern.

One thing that remains constant is Wirén’s wonderful talent for string arranging. All the quartets are overflowing with plinky plonks and zings and fiiiieuws – or whatever the technical terms may be.

It’s all immaculately performed by the Wirén Quartet. A bit too immaculately, perhaps. I get the feeling that, if they would tone down their reverence towards the composer a bit – he’s in their name after all – and let their own musical personalities shine through, this music would sound even better.

But what do I know? Do make up your own mind by listening to Dag Wirén string quartets by the Wirén Quartet on CD, Spotify or Apple Music. You won’t regret it.

 

For King, Country and Love: Handel and the Hanoverians

Last summer, I paid a short visit to London. In my backpack: a few biographies of – and a lot of music by – George Frideric Handel. My mission? To re-acquaint myself with Britain’s greatest composer. And to write a few articles about it, of course. Second stop: Buckingham Palace.

As I walked from Handel’s house to his grave in Westminster Abbey, I more or less passed Buckingham Palace. So, although I hadn’t planned to, I decided to take a closer look.

Buckingham palace

In Handel’s time, it was a lot smaller and nothing more than the townhouse of the Duke of Buckingham. Today, it’s the London residence of the British monarch and a honeypot for swarms of tourists from all over the world.

It’s fascinating to see how the monarchy has become Britain’s most successful export product. Not bad for what is essentially a German import. After all, it’s been only a hundred years since the family changed its name from ‘Saxe-Coburg und Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’.

You know who else is a piece of German import? Britain’s greatest composer, George Frideric Handel – who changed his name from Georg Friedrich Händel the moment he set foot on English soil.

Coincidence? Not at all.

“If Bach wrote music to please God, Handel was born to sing the praise of royalty.”

Long live the king

You probably know this tune of Handel’s:

It’s Zadok the Priest, an anthem Handel wrote for the coronation of George II, the second English king from the German house of Hanover. It’s played at every coronation since. And you might also recognize it from the shameless rip-off that is the UEFA Champions League Anthem.

Zadok the Priest is one of those pieces of music that you think you know, until you realize you don’t. Listen to it again and you’ll be amazed at how good it is. Yes, it’s big and solemn – just as a composition for such an occasion should be. Yet it’s also very clever and original. With its teasing introduction breaking off the rising tension for a few times before the triumphant chorus finally comes through. And the satisfying balance that comes from the alternation between the pompous ‘God Save the King’ parts in unison and the delicate ‘Hallelujah/Amen’ flourishes, set as a fugue.

Coronation of George II

Coronation of George II and his wife Caroline

If Bach wrote music to please God, Handel was born to sing the praise of royalty. Even in his most famous religious composition – Messiah – the image of the suffering savior is dwarfed by the triumphant ‘king of kings’ in the Hallelujah chorus.

Handel had every reason to be enthusiastic about monarchic power. After all, it was the generous financial support of George I and George II that allowed him the rock star lifestyle that most other musicians of his days could only dream of.

And maybe it wasn’t just money that endeared him to the Hanoverian royal family.

Made in Germany

If you have any taste in television, the first image that comes to mind when you think of the Hanoverian Dynasty is this guy from Blackadder:

Hanoverian Prince Regent from Blackadder

He’s the hilarious culmination of more than two centuries of anti-Hanoverian propaganda, which started under the Victorians and got worse – for obvious reasons – after the first world war. These German kings and princes were generally considered stupid, gluttonous and perpetually power-hungry.

The real story is very different. When the dukes of Hannover inherited the British crown, their Duchy was one of the most enlightened in Europe. And unlike their absolutist Stuart predecessors, they were clever enough to govern more by influence than by force. Most historians now think that they invented the modern monarchy.

But maybe it isn’t so much the Hanoverian men who deserve that honor.

Mädchenmacht*

George I received the British crown because his mother Sophia was a granddaughter of James II. It’s largely due to Sophia that the Hanoverian court became one of the most sophisticated in Europe. She especially took an interest in philosophy – reading Descartes and Spinoza and striking up a lifelong friendship with Leibniz.

Her daughter Sophia Charlotte married Frederic I of Prussia. She inherited her mother’s interest in philosophy and combined that with a passion for music.

Around 1696, she took an orphan princess into her home: Caroline of Ansbach. Apart from food and a roof over her head, Sophia Charlotte gave Caroline a proper enlightened education and the opportunity to meet some of the most illustrious philosophers and artists of that time, including the young Georg Friedrich Händel – on a visit in Berlin from his hometown of Halle.

* Girl power

Royal wedding

In 1705, another dashing young gentleman visited the court of Frederic I: Georg of Hanover, who would later become George II of England. After some time at the court in Hanover, she followed her husband to England to become princess of Wales and finally Queen Caroline.

Queen Caroline of England

From the moment she arrived in London, Caroline made it clear that she had no intention of limiting her new role to posing for portraits and looking good at parties. She actively interfered in politics, mainly through her husband and her close friendship with prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.

As an enlightened soul she saw it as her duty to promote modern science and the arts. One of the first persons she visited was Sir Isaac Newton. She asked him to recommend math and astronomy teachers for her children.

Of course, there was never any question about who would become the music teacher at the princely and royal courts: her old friend Handel.

People’s princess

You only need one story to realize what an extraordinary women Caroline was. In the 1720s, a promising new medical procedure against smallpox was widely discussed in England: inoculation, an early form of vaccination. To demonstrate her belief in modern science, Caroline had her own children inoculated. Thereby proving that:

  1. Inoculation is effective and completely safe.
  2. As an 18th century woman, she had more sense than an alarmingly large portion of present-day Americans and Europeans.

Queen Caroline died in 1737. Her husband realized his extraordinary luck in marrying this woman. At her deathbed, he promised her that he would not marry again but “would only take mistresses.” Apparently, that’s about as close to true love as you could get in the 18th century.

King George II

A very lucky man: king George II

Handel in love?

In his magnificent book The Lives of George Frideric Handel, David Hunter toys around with the idea that there was more to the relationship between Handel and Queen Caroline than that between a generous patron and a talented artist. Although he admits there’s no proof for his theory, he presents a powerful case by matching their timelines since their first meeting, when they were practically still teenagers.

True or false, the story of the lifelong romance between the princess and the musician is absolutely irresistible. Hollywood, if you’re reading this, don’t miss this opportunity to turn this story into a blockbuster. Personally, I’m thinking a cross-over between The Piano and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. But you’re the experts of course.

Requiem for a queen

As I said, there is no smoking gun for this theory about Handel’s love life. But there is an extremely reliable witness. And I can listen to its testimony over and over again: Handel’s Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline.

You’ll never convince me that Handel wrote this music out of respect and gratitude for a dynastic family. This is the sound of true grief for someone he greatly admired. Maybe, even, loved.

I wouldn’t call the Funeral Ode an obscure piece. But it certainly isn’t an audience favorite either. Strange, since funeral music has been a very popular niche throughout the ages. And a lot of that death music can’t hold the candle to Handel’s composition. Yes, that includes Mozart’s/Süssmayrs Requiem which, by the way, doesn’t even try to hide the influence of Handel’s Funeral Ode:

Crown jewel

Of course, monarchies caused a lot of misery throughout history. But their patronage, just like that of the church, did produce some amazing works of art. And Handel’s Funeral Ode for Queen Caroline is certainly one of the greatest jewels in the British crown.

No wonder that this work is played at every funeral of a member of the British royal family, especially if she’s female, right?

Right?!

Elton John

I see. Well then: Vive la république!

Seriously though, give Handel’s Funeral Ode a few listens if you haven’t yet. There’s an excellent version waiting for you on CD, Spotify or Apple Music.

 

Review: Schubert Unfinished by Concentus Musicus Wien

When I’m scanning the new classical album releases, I usually choose works I haven’t heard yet. As there’s still so much beautiful music to discover, why would I be interested in a slightly different version of, let’s say, Beethoven’s fifth?

There are exceptions to that rule. Those are works that I’m obsessed by – you could even say: in love with. I can’t stand the thought of missing out on the tiniest nuance of their character. And that’s exactly what a good new interpretation can reveal.

Coming of age

Schubert’s Unfinished symphony is one of those works. And I must say, the new recording by Concentus Musicus Wien, led by Stefan Gottfried, does not disappoint.

Schubert Unfinished by Concentus Musicus Wien

Funny thing about Schubert’s 8th symphony: when I was first drawn to it as an adolescent, I fell for all the doom and gloom that seem to permeate it – or at least its first two movements. And I still enjoy that all-engulfing weltschmerz. But in smaller doses.

Luckily, performance practice has been so obliging to parallel my coming of age. Recordings of the last few decades have blown away the dust that all those romantic interpretations had strewn on the surface of the Unfinished symphony.

Schubert’s Pastoral

This exceptional recording sounds to me like the high point of that evolution. Gone are the days when the beautiful but heavy tapestry of strings muffled the overall sound of the orchestra. Those strings are now a backdrop to the delicate interplay of the woodwinds and irreverent, even cheeky blaring of the brass section.

To me, it changes the character of the symphony: from the tragic to the pastoral. In fact, the biggest revelation for me was how closely Schubert’s 8th sometimes resembles Beethoven’s 6th.

The slow one fast and the fast one slow

Stefan Gottfried chooses his tempos wisely: the slow movement is relatively fast, the last movement rather slow – almost hesitant. The added bonus is the reduced character contrast between the first two movements (the Unfinished proper) and the final two. Read what that’s all about.

Meanwhile, René Jacobs and B’Rock Orchestra have started their own complete recording of the Schubert symphonies. The first installment certainly sounds promising, but I doubt they’ll be able to top Gottfried’s interpretation of the Unfinished. I’m ready to be surprised, though.

You can listen to the interpretation of Schubert’s Unfinished symphony by Concentus Music Wien on cd, Spotify and Apple Music.