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.

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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.

 

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My Visit to the Handel and Hendrix Museum

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. First stop: Handel’s house in London.

On the first floor of the Handel and Hendrix museum, you can watch a movie starring two passionate and eloquent musicians:

  • a harpsichord player who sings the praises of George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
  • an electric guitar player who raves about Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

But when the movie ends with these two jamming together, it’s a bit of an anti-climax. And that’s typical for the relationship between pop (or rock) and classical music: they have more in common than they think, but when they end up in bed together, it seldom leads to fireworks. The result is usually kitschy, pretentious or both. (Except when it’s awesome.)

So why would they force Handel and Hendrix to share a museum? Because fate brought them together.

Handel and Hendrix museum stars

Fate … and a timeless fashion sense

The story behind the Handel and Hendrix museum

You see, Jimi Hendrix lived in the attic of Handel’s house! Well, in the attic of Handel’s neighbour, to be precise. So they were divided by two centuries and a supporting wall. But that’s still a remarkable coincidence, right? (If you happen to be a statistician: I don’t really want to know.)

George and Jimi shared more than their rubbish collection day. They were both foreigners who made their fortune in London. They were both addicts – Jimi to heroin, George to food and wine. They were both musicians of course, and … that’s about it.

So I was curious to see how the Handel and Hendrix museum would fit these two musical giants together.

“I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.”

The Hendrix flat

Surprisingly, the Hendrix part of the museum made the biggest impression on me. His bedroom is decorated exactly as it was when he lived there from 1968 to 1969. Right down to the packet of Benson & Hedges and box of Quality Street next to his bed.

Handel and Hendrix museum piece

Rock and roll!

It was here that Jimi woke up one night to find Handel’s ghost walking in: “an old guy in a nightshirt and a grey pigtail”. Did I mention drugs were involved?

You can also browse through Hendrix’ stunningly diverse record collection. And yes, there’s some Handel in there. After hearing about his illustrious downstairs neighbour, Hendrix said: “I haven’t heard much of the fella’s stuff. But I dig a bit of Bach now and then.” He later went out to buy a copy of Messiah and Belshazzar.

The Handel house

Compared to that, the Handel portion of the Handel and Hendrix museum is a lot more, well, classical. You know what I mean: harpsichords in the middle of empty rooms, portraits on the walls, manuscripts in glass cases, …

Nothing wrong with all that, of course, but after the Hendrix experience (clever pun totally intended), I would have enjoyed rummaging through Handel’s opera score collection or finding a half-eaten bratwurst on his nightstand.

Of course, that’s not the museum’s fault. We just don’t know enough about Handel’s life to recreate his private quarters with any degree of historical accuracy. But it does threaten to confirm the image of classical music as a stuffy affair. Especially when fragments of psychedelic guitar sounds keep reminding you of the cool kid living in the attic.

Handel and Hendrix museum bedrooms

Visit without prejudice

Fortunately, Jimi Hendrix wasn’t so narrow-minded. Visitors to his flat remembered him playing along to his Handel records. And during the Winterland concerts, in Francisco in 1968, he inserted a musical quote from Messiah.

I’m pretty sure Handel would have returned the compliment, since at least half of his genius was due to cleverly stealing other people’s music.

So there’s at least one excellent reason to visit the Handel and Hendrix museum. It proves that – awkward bedfellows or not – pop and classical music make excellent neighbours.

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Tartini’s Devil’s Trill

Imagine waking up in the middle of the night to find the devil at your bedside. It actually happened to 21-year-old composer Giuseppe Tartini in 1713. This encounter brought him eternal success. And, also, terrible doom. But we’ll get to that later.

Tartini's Devil's Trill

This might be a dramatization.

The story behind Tartini’s Devil’s Trill

Tartini waited to tell anyone about this remarkable incident until he was 78. So he might have been mistaken about a few details. But there’s no reason to doubt his story.

The short version is that the devil wanted to buy Tartini’s soul. In exchange, he would perform some – strangely unspecified – services. Tartini jumped at this chance. And indeed, his horned servant ‘anticipated’ his ‘every desire’.

“The devil really does have the best tunes.”

When his desires were fulfilled, Tartini handed the devil his violin. Satan started to play a sonata ‘so wonderful and so beautiful […] as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy.’

Tartini woke up and immediately wrote down – as well as he could remember – what the devil had played for him. Sadly, it wasn’t nearly as good as what he had heard in his dream. Nevertheless, it was the best thing he ever wrote and Tartini’s violin sonata in g minor or devil’s trill sonata remains today one of the most beloved showpieces for the violin.

Tartini's Devil's Trill

‘Excellent deal.’ – Giuseppe Tartini

A trilling and thrilling piece of music

The first two movements of Tartini’s devil’s trill sonata – a slow introduction and a dance – are beautiful. But it’s in the third movement that all hell breaks loose.

Tartini's Devil's Trill

This man’s technique is as fabulous as his shirt.

Everybody always talks about how this piece is so hard to play. In fact, the rumor is that Tartini had six fingers on his left hand. But does that really matter – unless you’re a violinist? Above all, it’s a freakish and haunting composition. You can hear the devil putting on all his moves: taunting, seducing, and overpowering you. He really does have the best tunes.

Tartini devil’s trill: the backlash

So: Satan gained another soul, Tartini got immortal fame, and we have a wonderful violin sonata to listen to.

Everybody happy?

Not quite. It may take some time, but if you make a deal with the devil, you will always pay a terrible price.

 

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