Saturday, 30 November 2013

Benjamin Britten - Billy Budd

Frankly, I'm not a great fan of the centenary industry - the world seems to be full of people poring over lists of dates looking for things that happened in years gone by, arbitrarily hitching them to the fact that we count in base 10. However, in the recent case of Benjamin Britten, I've found everything I've seen and heard about him quite gripping.

Best of all for me was the opera Billy Budd. I must admit it's decades since I last devoted time to sitting through a whole opera  and I'd not seen this one before (I'm guessing I'm not the only one). I watched the Glyndebourne production of it  on TV last week and I was glued to it from beginning to end. It's based on the novella by Herman Melville of the same name (which, I have to say, I've not read). The libretto was written by EM Forster and Eric Crozier. Written in 1951, the opera has, unusually, an all-male cast. It's set on a British battleship during the wars with the French at the end of the 18th century. Billy Budd is a very likeable man, almost angelic. Significantly with regard to the plot, he stammers. Like Tom Bowling in the song, he's the darling of the crew.  However, one man aboard the ship, the Master-at-Arms John Claggart, hates him. Claggart falsely accuses Billy of plotting mutiny. Called to account for himself before the incredulous Captain Vere, Billy, rendered speechless by his stammer, lashes out in frustration at Claggart, killing him. Although Billy is univerally loved and Claggart universally hated, the Captain -who compares Billy's actions to those of an angel- and the officers can find no alternative but to sentence Billy to hang from the yard arm, the only punishment for striking a senior officer in time of war. "Starry Vere, God bless you!" sings Billy as he faces execution, horrified by the thought that those who have been forced by circumstances beyond their control to sentence him to death will have to live with the consequences.

It's a many-layered story made richer by the fact that in it, the monarchist British are fighting the republican French. Opera is often said to be an elitist art form: Billy Budd is a good example of why it is not. I mentioned the song, Tom Bowling and a quick look on the internet tells me that the work of the author of the song was known to Melville and that the song itself may have influenced the creation of the story. Significantly, perhaps, Melville tells us Billy "was illiterate; he could not read, but he could sing", a talent among several he shares with Tom:

Tom never from his word departed
His virtues were so rare:
His friends were many and true hearted
His Poll was kind and fair;
And then he'd sing so blithe and jolly
Ah! Many's the time and oft;
But mirth is turned to melancholy
For Tom is gone aloft
For Tom is gone aloft.

Charles Dibdin (1745-1814)
This song made me cry as a child when my mother played it on the piano. It still does. And I defy anyone to sit through Billy Budd with a dry eye.

The DVD of the Glyndebourne production of Billy Budd can be bought from the Glyndebourne website.


This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A Walk in Wensleydale

A friend -Alex- and I have taken to going for walks together around the local hills. We're not talking long expeditions here, just walks that take a morning or an afternoon. Though it's true that there are wonderful places to be found for those who go further afield, as I tend to do, it's easy to overlook what's on our doorstep.

Regular readers of this blog may well say that I don't. It's not long since I did what I'm about to do - write about Pen Hill, the nearest "big hill" to Leyburn. It is true that I am besotted by the place, but my regular visits are usually made running, not walking. When we were discussing where to go the other week, I suggested Pen Hill for this very reason. It had been a while since I'd simply wandered around on it, soaking up the details that usually flash past.

Pen Hill: Southern Edge
We parked at the highest point on the road over Melmerby Moor, at the Eastern end of the hill and walked up the track over the moor, over the area known as "Little Pen Hill" before veering North to take East Gate path, which leads up to the Southern edge of the plateau. This one of my favourite local places. There is a small, natural outcrop of rocks there. They're just too small for "bouldering" but big enough for one to enjoy sheltering behind them or sitting on top of them. The spot has a wildness about it - it takes just enough effort to get there for it to feel set apart from the world below. I touch here on an aspect of big, sprawling plateau-topped hills: they're not the only place with this quality but they do often have a magical feel to them. Perhaps it's because what looks like a single great lump from a distance turns out to be a collection of seemingly self-contained worlds.

Cotton Grass: Pen Hill Plateau
We moved on from the world of the rocky outcrop to the world of  Ram's Gill, a small, but steep-sided clough where we stopped for a few minutes to look at the map and set a bearing from there to the true summit of the hill. A fence leading from there to the summit is shown on my OS map - but there's no fence there now. I say the summit, but it would be wrong to call it the summit of Pen Hill. That name, strictly speaking applies to the Eastern end of the plateau, slightly sharper in outline than the Western end. Although the hill as a whole is known locally as "Pen Hill" the area of the true summit is actually called the Height of Hazely.

This section of the walk was extremely hard going underfoot - one had to be continually on the lookout for holes under the thick mat that makes up the surface of the moor. If one is not careful one is forever stumbling. The photo of cotton grass (above) was taken looking towards this bleak area. There is no "cone" to walk towards. One simply becomes increasingly aware that more and more of the horizon is visible. Finally, one enters a zone with a 360-degree view. The summit is somewhere within it. We found a tussock that seemed to be just a little higher than the others but I know from experience on other hills that one can while away an afternoon looking for that elusive highest point! From the "zone", the hill seemed to slope away in all directions - obviously, you might say, but from other vantage points the whole plateau area does look pretty uniformly flat. You know you're more or less on the top when you get there.

Pen Hill: cairn overlooking Coverdale and "the Whernsides"
The rest of the walk was easier. Until we turned towards the summit we'd been walking along the wilder, Southern edge of the hill. Fewer people visit it so the paths are fainter and less easy underfoot. However, in my opinion, that quality of wildness I referred to more than makes up for this. It also overlooks Coverdale (one of my favourite Dales) and "the Whernsides".

The Northern edge, where we now quickly found ourselves, is more frequented. The paths are well-worn by more adventurous dog-walkers. They tend to run along the cliffs of Black Scar and Penhill Scar - it's a spectacular area, and probably affords the best aerial view you can get of Wensleydale without leaving the ground.

The good paths made for fast going and we soon reached the Iron-Age chieftan's grave and the pile of stones that stands at the Eastern  end of the hill. The sun was setting and the full moon rising as we dropped down the steep hillside and crossed the fields on our way back to the car. We left behind us a landscape bathed in an extraordinary light.

Astute readers will realise the photos I've used to illustrate this post are ones I took a while ago as the cotton grass isn't out right now.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Soundtrack to the Spectacle?

I've never thought of post-war British composers being like London buses but for me recently this has certainly been the case. To my shame,  I've given  them little thought in recent years and then, all of a sudden, several caught my attention. I've recently written posts about one or two of them (Alan Rawsthorne and John Tavener).  Also, the media have devoted quite a lot of its cultural coverage to the Benjamin Britten  centenary. It occurred to me that one of my favourite books at the time I first discovered them all (the 1970s) was Contemporary British Music, by Francis Routh. This book, written in the early seventies, set out to survey the work of post-war British composers. I decided it would be interesting to return to the book and take a look at the composers he thought to be worthy of note back then (I realise it's a minority interest, so I'll try to think of other things to post about, too).  How many of them, I wondered, are still taken seriously - and how many should be? How many, for example, have made it onto Youtube? Routh obviously thought the composers he wrote about were important. In his introduction he wrote that the book was "specifically concerned with British composers, whose work has multiplied so exceedingly since 1945, particularly as London is now the musical capital of Europe, if not of the Western world." In the early seventies is was still possible to write or talk like that and be taken seriously. In those days, there was still a significant paternalistic tone to cultural life (strikingly expressed through the BBC), not to mention funding for the arts. 

Routh's informative reference book is just the kind of book that really has been replaced by the internet (it's text, without musical examples, is, in fact, on the internet). Since he wrote it,  massive changes have taken place. Today, we don't need to read what a writer says about music (often all you could do in those days unless you had an unlimited vinyl budget!) - we can simply search for and listen to it. Huge social changes have taken place, too - we know, now as never before, that we are, first and foremost, consumers. In an earlier post I said that although it's heard everywhere, music generally is far less likely to get listened to these days. It really does get used more as a soundtrack and less as something to be listened to in it's own right. Any music that -to use that wry phrase- "repays repeated listening" will most likely end up on the floor of the cutting-room of life. If  Guy Debord was right, and 'the history of social life can be understood as "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing,"' (in other words, the reduction of authentic life to spectacle), then it's hardly surprising that music that displays the qualities of a good soundtrack increasingly takes precedence over more thoughtful music. Such music might be more readily available via the internet but will people take the time -and feel a need- to listen to it?

It wasn't just my recent musical encounters prompted me to write about this. I've been to several art exhibitions in recent years (notably, at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield and of Ben Nicholson's work in Kendal) which got me thinking. Many British artists from the middle of the 20th century are still thought worthy of gallery space - is similar attention paid to as many composers from the same era? If not, why not? I decided that going back to see if listening to their music might prove as enjoyable as the time I'd spent looking at art. I would try to pay more attention, too, to what the composers where trying to say as opposed to how they said it.

I said I thought this project might be a minority interest but, then again the composers covered by Routh are many and varied, ranging from William Walton to the electronic experimentalist Delia Derbyshire (see above - she also was responsible for realising the Dr Who theme). There should be something in it for everyone - and a few surprises.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Manx Suite

I wrote this suite a while back. I've just realised it's sitting out there on Soundcloud and I don't think I've ever put it on my blog!

It's for piano duet. There are three movements, each based on a famous tune from the Isle of Man. The first takes the tune of the folk song Ellan Vannin - the tragic story of the wreck of a ship of the same name. The second is based on the tune known as The Frog Dance. The third, tongue-in-cheek, is based on the Laxey Wheel song (there is a momentary allusion to Yorkshire, where I live).

This performance is 100% computerised piano, I'm afraid, so nuances are lost. However, I'm posting in the hope that there might be a couple of pianists out there (the score below can be printed out)! It's not difficult to play and it's not yet had a public performance...

Saturday, 16 November 2013

John Tavener

I was saddened to read of the death of the composer John Tavener this week. Of his music, what most impressed me was his dramatic cantata, The Whale, which has to be heard to be believed! It's still my favourite, along with the Celtic Requiem (Requiem for Jenny Jones). These early pieces made a deep impression on me - one which remains.

I met him once or twice around 1980. I'd just left university at the time and, inspired by The Whale, I had plans to study composition with him. Unfortunately, as they say, life is what happens to you while you're making plans, and it turned out this particular plan didn't come off. I have memories of a kind, attentive man who really sought to encourage me, a scruffy, disorganised young man with a tendency to b.o. and whose clothes had obviously shrunk in the wash. He was also the only person -to date- to offer me a lift in a Rolls Royce.

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Voyages of Discovery

One of the highlights of life in my early teens was the trip to the local library where, once you had brought in your stylus to be checked under a microscope, you could borrow vinyl LPs. These days, if you want to explore the work of a contemporary composer, all you have to do is go to Youtube. In those days, it was a question of waiting for a broadcast, going to a concert or finding a recording, before you even had the faintest idea what his or her music sounded like.

One of my early record library discoveries was the music of the British composer Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971). It struck me as bold, lyrical and original in a way that seemed a million miles from the worlds of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. More recently I've been struck by how it seems to breathe similar air to a lot of British art made during that time. Rawsthorne's wife, Isabel, was a painter and listening recently I was repeatedly reminded of exhibitions I've seen of the work of such artists as Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, to name but two.

One of the first pieces of Rawsthorne's I came across was his First Piano Concerto, first performed in the early 1940s. It's action-packed right from the opening bar. It's shifting harmonies and strikingly-shaped melodies are typical.

Perhaps one reason Rawsthorne's music is not played more these days is that traditionalists found it too "difficult" whereas fans of the avant-garde found it too traditional. I'm neither a fan nor a detractor of Britten's music but often when I see post-war British music programmed,  I often wonder why Britten's music is so highly rated when there were so many other imaginative musical minds around at the same time - Alan Rawsthorne's included.

Much is made of the political pressure under which Soviet composers worked, forced to produce music which met with the approval of the State. Thinking about Rawsthorne this week it struck me as ironic how, although Stalin is criticised for demanding that composers write music people would want to listen to, it is now the case in the West that the audience-friendly music of Shostakovich gets a far wider airing than the music of Western composers working at the same time who were free to compose what they liked!

Why should this be the case? Obviously, what music says cannot be rendered into words. However, one cannot escape the sense that the music that survives historically tells the story we want to hear about our civilisation. The music that fills the "classical mainstream" can,  by and large, be heard as a soundtrack to history as we like to see it. This, I would argue, is at least as important in determining whether music survives or falls into obscurity as whether it is "good" or "bad".  The story that can be read into Shostakovich's music, that of the dark days of the Soviet Union, is, from a British perspective, a safe story - it manages to be dark, dangerous, tragic and exciting (not to mention witty) while telling us nothing bad about ourselves. And the man wrote tunes.

Music is dangerous.  It wields, I would argue, a power on the mind comparable to that of mind-altering drugs. Perhaps this is one reason why, musically, we are less interested in voyages of discovery than we like to think. We might experience almost-real discomfort and be taken to places we don't want to go to - and who can remember where those lesser-known, mid-twentieth century British composers went? If we take the trouble to find out, we'll probably find that they ended up at similar destinations to the artists I mentioned, to the writers and poets working around the same time (Rawsthorne wrote his Elegiac Rhapsody in memory of his friend the poet, Louis MacNiece). We might well discover something enriching, something we're pleased we found.

Another thing is that, although it's heard everywhere, music generally is far less likely to get listened to these days. It really does get used more as a soundtrack and less as something to be listened to in it's own right. Any music that -to use that wry phrase- "repays repeated listening" will most likely end up on the floor of the cutting room of life. Please note I've carefully phrased this sentence to include myself, and if you don't actually want to, then fair enough, but - how many of us, reading a blog-post such as this one, will actually set aside time to listen to the Youtube videos it contains from beginning to end, even if we'd quite like to?

Rawsthorne himself was no stranger to soundtracks and wrote quite a lot of film music. If there is any truth in what I've said about history and soundtracks, it's significant that he's probably best remembered -if in a somewhat anonymous capacity- as the composer of the music to the 1953 film about the Battle of the South Atlantic, The Cruel Sea. It carries distinct echoes of that First Piano Concerto we've, er, just listened to:

If you want to hear more of Rawsthorne's music there's still plenty of it to be had on CD. I've just bought myself one and -it's in there somewhere- the excellent Peter Donohoe's performance of the Piano Concertos is available on NAXOS for a mere six pounds. 

This post is one of a series on post-WWII British Composers. Click on the British Composers label to read them all.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Of Welsh Art, Truth and the Uncanny...

We've just got back from a week in Wales. We didn't do a lot while we were there - although we did visit Bodnant garden and Plas Newydd on Anglesey. We did drive out to Aberdaron at the end of the Llyn Peninsula and spent a pleasant afternoon at Porth Oer, or Whistling Sands. The weather was quite stormy and the waves, spectacular. On the way, we stopped near the top of Rhiw Mountain and took a photo of the waves breaking on the beach at Porth Neigwl:

 I took one or two other photos, on the hills just outside Llanberis:

I always look forward to visiting art galleries in North Wales. A lot of very adventurous art is produced round there, I think. We've often visited Harlech Pottery, but Zeb Reynolds'  ceramics were new to me. I've blogged before about Oriel Croesor which is still -I think- as good as it is remote! On our last day we discovered Ffin y Parc gallery, just outside Llanwrst, where there is currently an exhibition of Chloe Holt's work.


I'm still reading Herzog on Herzog and looking for any related material out there on the internet. I've always liked Herzog's assertion that he seeks in his films to expose "ecstatic truth" rather than "an accountant's truth". I came across this short film  which I liked not only for its subject but also on account of its film (and film music) clips:


Talking of truth, while in Wales I picked up a book of simple science experiments for children on a second-hand bookstall. It appealed to the big kid in me. There's all sorts in it - for a start, it shows you how to explore stereoscopic vision by holding up two parallel fingers to create a floating sausage in front of your nose. This one was a bit obvious, I thought. I do it most days. Then there was how to make a planetarium out of a tin can - something I've always fancied doing but never got round to.

What caught my attention most of all, though, as I flicked through the book, was how to multiply on your fingers. It only works for tables from 6 to 10 but it's uncanny.

Assign your fingers a number (same on each hand):
Little finger - 6
Ring finger - 7
Middle finger - 8
Index finger  - 9
Thumb - 10

If you want to know, say, 7 x 8, then look at your hands, palms up.

Touch your left ring finger (7) with your right middle finger (8). Add these two fingers to the total fingers below them. For most people, this should come to five fingers.

Add a zero. 5 becomes 50

For most people, there are 5 fingers in total above the touching fingers. 3 on the left, 2 on the right. Multiply these two numbers together. 3 x 2 = 6

The answer to the multiplication, "seven eights" is 50+6=56.

Uncanny, but it works! Touch any two fingers and do the sums. It's uncanny because it's impossible -well, for a non-mathematician like me- to see why it works. I phoned my son (whose big subject is maths) and asked him if he could find out why it worked. He emailed me a chunk of algebra. Assume the two numbers we want to multiply are a and b:

(((a-5)+(b-5))x10)+((10-a)(10-b)) =
(10a+10b-100)+(100-10a+10b+ab) =

I pondered this until steam came out of my ears - and I thought Daniel had explained it all for me until I tried working it out on my fingers...